Alli wakes in a sweat, slick damp alive so alive with heat and fear. Linen and skin part ways reluctantly tenderly gingerly, afraid to exist separately but unable to react. The moon is gone, cavorting with a favorite star behind lumbering curtains of cloud and Alli knows it won't be back in time but for what? The not knowing kicks her in the belly.
Everything is heat now, dark heat climbing inside her clothes to languish against wet skin. Her fingers fumble at cheap buttons, divorcing them from slits in fabric and maybe they're protesting but they lack tongues teeth lips, she can't hear them. A plastic circle flies off into a corner, too slow to respond now dead useless discarded. Cole will pick it up if she knows him and she does, knows him so deeply because they reach down each other's throats and claw until something novel gleams to be claimed.
Naked now she treads over new carpet through new doorways set in new walls. A new stove gleams with four blue eyes in the kitchen but the kitchen is not waiting for her. The eyes she needs are not blue they are grey they are winter colored and they need her too. It waits, the creature with those eyes, waits somewhere outside and she must go to it.
Instead Cole is there, solid real comfortable, sober for enough seconds to realize her. His cigarette falls from callused fingers onto the porch, and he is angry, ugly words bubbling up from the bottom of sick lungs. They gather, arrange themselves to be exhaled spit out expelled from a body too rotten to contain the beauty of language.
"What the hell are you doing," he hisses, moving his body in front of hers. Work hardened hands grip her carelessly, collapse her back inside the doorframe toward all the new Cole has bought to protect him from the things that know. This drywall this carpet these light bulbs do not know what love is what marriage is, they cannot say what is wrong here. When all the fresh-faced doors are closed with the tongues of deadbolts thrown against untarnished strike plates, when every slat in every blind is pulled shut with careful attention, then he can feel unplagued by judgment.
"You want those perverts to see you like this, huh? You want them to think about you when they can't get it up for their wives? You're disgusting, Alli." He still whispers because it is three in the morning and the neighbors can't know. They are new too, unaware and perfect and happy inside their own new walls where they won't ask the same familiar questions.
"We're starting over. Don't fuck this up with your antics. I don't know what to do with you anymore." He is pushing her down down into white polyester with tight hands tight lips tight eyes closed off from her. The closing has been so subtle but suddenly she sees it suddenly misses the him who flourished with her.
"It's hot," Alli mutters, unable to summon the words she always wishes she would have said, after. It is not hot now it is frigid it is February she remembers but too late. Cole stands over her glowing in the moment alight and maybe he does flourish still but separately.
"Stay in the fucking house if you want to be naked! That's what houses are for, open a damn window! And don't say you were looking for me. You don't want me." He turns his head and spits onto the porch, the new porch with new boards new screws new varnish. Filth tries to splash on the new but it is too viscous too self absorbed and it only sticks.
She doesn't want him. When he kisses her with cracked lips yellow teeth gray slug tongue lolling into her, she tightens in that secret place, seals her intimacy away. He finds it always, makes her want in bewildered ways but daylight tells the same story the different story. Sunshine coerces his offspring into blooming vining twining about her in subtle shades of blue.
Cole says those words to make them false, to make her argue beg grovel cringe demean herself for him. He wants to be fought with and contradicted because that is only how he can love. Tonight she cannot give him that.
"I wasn't looking for you," Alli whispers, and she sees it hurt. Cole hurts in flickers, fractions of seconds where his eyes turn soft and she wonders if he was not always Same. The flicker passes and now she will hurt for saying that, for agreeing with him even though it's true they know it's true but they cannot separate.
He tells her he loves her while it is happening, and when it is over he carries her to bed and lies beside her tenderly. Alli cries. Cole strokes her hair even though she turns away, retreats to the very edge of their shared space to hate him quietly. The new looks on unaware, watches curiously this ritual of human courtship.
Sleep comes cautiously, scouting its territory before settling over the room. The doing must be done for sleep to swallow them into its soft stomach, or Cole will ward it off with loudness and light. But the doing is done and sleep comes and Alli stops wondering why she stays.
Morning shuffles in with no more dreams, for which Alli is glad. Cole has gone to live outside with the daytime people. He will smile for them and shake their hands and be What They Need, charm them like he does so well. Papers will shuffle, expensive pens will glide, money will move in slow masses to shape futures.
In the shower, Alli takes off her wedding band. Everything hurts like it should as she scrubs at welling bruises, tries to push them back into her veins to poison her. Her muscles ache amazingly hum recumbent to the tune of satisfaction. Cole is satisfied with her, and it's enough it has to be enough because there's nothing else for Alli Alli is alone.
Water streams from pipe to scalp to shoulder blades, always in search of lowlier ground. It carries him off of her down the drain underground where they all end up eventually. Soap suds swirl steam rises clings to cold glass spills over into ventilation ducts to settle. A jilted wedding band gleams ominously, silver and new ancient and hard hearted, watches Alli wash him away from the dark places the nighttime places. It knows what the house does not know, what the walls and floors and ceilings will one day learn but not today. It knows what love is.
She does not stop until the water runs cold, until steam is gone and everything is sharp edged and dangerous again. Wet clings to unsavory skin it must be unsavory because no one else wants her just Cole, just her husband who saved her from the terrible grasp of independence. The wedding band goes back on like it always does when the water runs cold. Alli can only doubt when white softens the world bends backs its teeth for just those minutes.
Winter walks through the door uninvited, in the way the winter always seems to. It does not sneak or stalk or wander, just walks straight through and takes up residence. It does not care which door it uses, front back garage shower closet, only that it be opened on a warm place. Alli welcomes it despite goosebumps erupting across her body, beckons it because winter is the truthful season. Summer is the lying time and winter is the truthful season.
She wraps herself in jeans and a sweater, both ordered from a Victoria's Secret catalogue with Cole's money at Cole's insistence. Manicured nails peek out from overlong sleeves, another of Cole's "indulgences." Alli is his wife lover bedmate but also his trophy. He has much pride in her slender body clear skin bright eyes magnificent breasts, they are his to own and the world should know it.
What is important about winter is the covering, the hiding of skin from prying wind and prying eyes. Last night is gone from sight, even in the starkness of sunshine no one will see what she feels. He saved her face this time because of Cassie, though Cassie will know the same as every other time. She will know and Cole knows, but she will not have to speak which is the importance of it.
Cole's truck is in the driveway, shiny black paint shiny chrome bumpers tinted windows the whole masculine compensation package. He took Alli's car to the bank today, and she is surprised to be surprised. He spared her face and took her car because of Cassie he can't let go of Cassie. Can't let go of Cassie because she let go of him. That is the way of things.
Alli takes the truck because she has to, because the only thing worse than seeing her sister is not they both hurt so much but to see is the lesser of two evils [during delirium, "lesser of two evils" becomes "lesser of two weevils"]. It thrums beneath her too powerful too impatient and she knows why this is Cole's truck why he laughs at her car her hand-me-down daddy's girl car. It is more than transportation it is validation of him of his.
The heater was off stays off they are both cold natured creatures with cold natured habits. Snowbanks line wet roads black roads and that one rock Johnny's rock is cracking now by the Interstate sign. Has it been so long? Have so many winters passed her by that their teeth have sunk into that memory? She thinks remembers counts defines swerves because she didn't see that truck barreling through on the yellow line. New of course they're new tires kiss gravel roughly a cheap hooker kiss then the one night stand is over and the road is fully under her again but it's too late now, the memory already started.
It is summer and she is twelve they are all twelve except Cassie who used to be Cassidy until yesterday and Alli is still Alice for three years yet. Cassie who used to be Cassidy is fifteen too old for these shenanigans she says but she comes anyway. Shenanigans is Uncle Joe's word but Cassie likes it likes anything big smart city not small town she wants out of here.
Alice and Cassie and Tim who was Timmy and Johnny who will always be Johnny and Sarah Jean the Cattle Queen are sneaking out but not sneaking really just not telling. Summer things must be done no matter what parents and warning signs say. It is summer and the summer things beckon, the creek the swings the playground so hot it blisters palms thighs buttocks but mostly The Rock. Sarah Jean leads the way across an overgrown pasture on her granddaddy's land. There used to be a gravel road they used when this was still a cow pasture but the road is gone maybe The Rock is gone, the state came in to pave it away for an Interstate a between-way for people who won't look twice at this town. They're off to cities in other states other places.
Johnny sees it first sees that it's still there between yellow monsters on tracks sleeping Sunday morning away. Maybe it's too big to move or just enough not in the way but it's there the same ragged boulder as always. Heat waves are rising behind it already from fresh faced tar laid down by strangers it all looks like a dream. Johnny who will always be Johnny sees it first and from then on it is Johnny's rock.
All the children itch around their ankles from unchewed grass in a field which should be shallower should not be waded through but trodden on. Sarah Jean is the Cattle Queen and this is her land someday but not anymore, not once the concrete trees have sprouted and spread over top of it. They pass the orange signs without a second glance; signs are nothing to determined children with traditions to uphold.
Johnny climbs first because he should they let him he is already growing into the leader of the pack the one they all respect, even Cassiedy. The importance of it is who is second who is next who is favorite. Tim steps up to take his place as second man wing man best man always next where Johnny leads and some days later he will hate it loathe it wish to be first but roles are already set, he will know down in his often jumped bones that he belongs there. Tim steps up puts one foot on The Rock which is now Johnny's rock already shifts his weight to climb to join to follow…
"No." The syllable slaps him back a physical blow stinging deep into the wrinkles of their well worn friendship. Tim shows it for a single second then steps back returns to lowlier ground that is his flaw, he always runs in search of easier passages and lowlier ground. He will not forget this he never forgets but he will accept it incorporate it into his self. Johnny leads and Tim accepts. Sarah Jean stares stupidly off across the temporary saffron jungle of road birthing machines. She will climb last and that is fine all is fine for Sarah Jean in her simple world full of simple minded colors.
The children wait, gazing up at Johnny where he perches crouches powerfully. Even Sarah Jean looks to him with bewilderment. The natural order has been disturbed.
"Alice?" Johnny extends a hand to the girl he will one day love but for now only admires, the girl who will one day dream of Nowhere but today climbs to him without any real worries hurts ideas of what will be. There is a moment then of presage of knowing but not and it passes seamlessly. Tim climbs after and all is right not same but right again the order has shifted accommodated for Johnny like it always will.
Laura Jean follows Cassie follows Tim until they all stand at the precipice of their private monument. Smooth black shimmers and undulates below so far below but realistic now, not the miles it seemed when they were seven. Tim takes a baby step towards the edge. Johnny copies him.
"Stop it!" Cassie shrieks, afraid of the hardness now the solid not-gravel-grass that dwells close enough for a cordial hello. Laura Jean giggles and that just eggs the boys on. Tim shuffles Johnny tiptoes Tim squirms forward another centimeter. Alice joins in with a brave stride that puts her right at the edge of that hunk of granite left over from a glacial age.
Tim falters Cassie screams Johnny reaches for Alice's hand shoulder elbow anything but she is already falling already tumbling heels over knees over head then right side up again. Kneesbentfeetapartlandslowly she thinks and almost does but not quite just wrong enough to feel the rearranging of tendons in an ankle a remarkably clear moment of sensation and she almost enjoys the brilliance of it but then pain comes. The pain is a train it arrives full speed does not stop barrels on through her and she is twelve but she cries.
Cassie is still screaming Laura Jean freezes Johnny is calling to her apologizing fervently feverishly. He tells Cassie to stop it to help to go to do something "areyouokAliceareyoupleasebeok" he is saying praying repeating believing because she must be she can't be anything else. It is a moment of caring they will not remember but time will remember will bend this moment into something greater.
Alice curls instinctively, makes her body small against the hurt her skin clings upon the juicy dry of unripe asphalt so she tries to feel that instead. Hair falls over eyes hiding tears pain tears not so shameful but she doesn't want Cassie to see them. It is Johnny who comes first brushes back hair and tears together before Cassie runs up. Cassie is white so white so scared of what is happening what could happen still. She wants to scream but Alice blinks and it helps. Dead people don't blink they stare forever. Alice is okay.
[And just like the first time the very first time it is Johnny who comes first but Alice will follow she followed him then she will follow him now and when she does a moment later it is unbelievable.]
Johnny carries Alice home piggyback style across the field across the street he would carry her across town but they live close. Her dad yells at them yells at Cassie except he calls her Cassidy Rae because she's in trouble she should be watching her sister but look what happened. He starts to yell at Johnny but Johnny leaves walks out so his own father can yell at him tonight for something else.
The doctor says it is a sprain a terrible sprain probably worse than a break but it is what it is. It's almost a year before that ankle feels right again. It's longer than that before Johnny comes back around. Alice sees him at school in the park in his yard sometimes they talk but he doesn't come around doesn't look for her and she wonders what it meant when she climbed up after him.
Johnny's rock becomes a not-part of summer then, a baby thing they say they do not want but they do they are only scared only busier with other things adolescent things. It has only played its first part but already it is being forgotten.
Cassie's house is neat, trim corners fresh paint gingham curtains in the kitchen window. It is a proud house a country house Ethan's house. Shaded lawn peach trees (bare now of course winter is the barren time) rocking chairs on a wraparound porch probably a fresh pot of coffee and a hot apple pie inside. Ethan's money bought this house but Cassie makes it home.
Bonnie the Labrador barks excitedly as Alli pulls into the gravel drive, Jake tells her to hush it's just aunt Alli and Alli's heart breaks like it does every time. Bonnie's collar jingles a leash latch clicks and Jake is gone out the back door gone until he thinks Alli has gone home. If he comes back too soon he will slink upstairs unseen but not unnoticed.
Cassie comes out onto the porch as Alli dismounts Cole's behemoth truck. She is stone-faced unshowing unsaying but she sees she knows.
"Emily and I just mulled some cider," Cassie says with a conjured smile. "Ethan bottled it special in October, there was a good crop."
Distance stretches between them in four dimensions and the hardest one is time. Alli should know how the harvest was should know what the weather was on pressing day should know that Emily helped Jason helped that the juice was so end of summer sweet she should know. She belongs here and she should know.
Inside is warm stovewood crackles cheerily conspiratorially it whispers of a fireless place far from the sea. A dream is creeping back to her, dancing on the tiptoes of a stranger born of bones. Alli does not wish to dwell on Nowhere she is real now here now her niece is running from the kitchen with flour smeared across one cheek.
"We made cookies!" Emily shrieks with the boundless energy of three years old. Cassie's smile turns real at the sight of her daughter. Emily jumps into Alli's arms her little knees dipping into bruises but Alli cannot cringe cannot be weak. She brushes the whiteness away from Emily kisses her cheeks spins her around like good aunties should (like good water ought to) and joy happens.
"What kind of cookies?" Alli asks and Cassie just looks on. This is the hoping time the lovely time it has always been Emily who can make Alli wonder.
"Chocolate chocolate!" Emily beams. She points to the kitchen tugs on Alli's hand to take her there to look at the pretty things they made. Alli sets her down on the counter next to a plate of cookies which are indeed chocolate chocolate and flanked by a mug of hot cider. Cassie strokes Emily's hair lovingly motherly but a truck rumbles up and Emily flies away jumps dashes screams "Daddy!" and is gone.
Alli sips the cider and it is good it tastes like home like memory like mother. Like always she wants to apologize but there are no apologies here there is no time for that only for knowing each other and months will pass again that is sure. The hour drive between their lives is four months six months two years long.
"How's Ethan?" Alli asks. Cassie conjures another smile another grin another upturned grimace for the sake of conversation. For the sake of not fighting.
"He's working down at the mill through the winter, waiting it out until planting season. I've never known a man who loves the sweat and the dirt more than he does." Cassie does not mention the almost-accident, just as Alli will not mention Cole's violence. There is a wall between them.
"He's a good man," Alli says. "A good man with a good head, and a good father. Emily's growing up so fast."
"She turned three in November. Jake's already seven, can you believe it?" Cassie sighs, looks out the kitchen window onto the lawn onto the drive onto everything she has now but never wanted. Alli looks too, but she sees the things she wanted and cannot have. This life Cassie's life is the perfect picture Alli always dreamed, two kids a puppy a good hearted husband with a head for the land. It should have been so different.
"I always thought it would be you here, raising children and making cookies, pressing cider every fall. I was going to be far away from Braxton and maybe I'd come visit at Christmas, but I wouldn't stay long. Now I wouldn't trade this for anything." Cassie's voice is soft, hesitant.
The wall shows itself then, becomes a tangible separation of dreams and reality and jealousy and sorrow.
"Maybe… maybe I shouldn't come anymore." Alli says, a thought into words before she can stop it take it back swallow that regret like a little pink pill. She sees it hurt in a different way than Cole hurts, a full bodied welling of pain because Cassie is not Same she is not Other but not Same only human fragile shallow-but-sweet. "Cole doesn't like me driving out here by myself anyway."
"Cole doesn't like anything he doesn't control, Alli. That's why he's so in love with you." Hate shows itself in Cassie's gentle brown eyes her chocolate chocolate eyes so different from her sister her once upon a time best friend. "Has he gotten his way yet?"
Alli panics. The baby she means the baby how can she know? Memories splinter as she rifles through them frantically how does Cassie know they all clatter down together in pieces torn apart but there is nothing there no clue no slip not even at Christmas when Cassie pulled her aside and begged her to stay. Then she realizes.
"We moved in two weeks ago. He pulled some strings at the bank for the loan, but he would have found another way if he had to." Inside her whirling mind Alli breathes a sigh of relief. Of course Cassie is asking about the house, the house Cole wanted so much he outbid the asking price outbid the young couple from Arkansas who wanted a nice neighborhood for their soon to be twins. No one can know about the other thing the secret thing the terrible thing he promises when the doing is done.
"Does he still…" Cassie swallows, unsure how to phrase the question she is not supposed to ask the truth she is not supposed to say. Alli's face is flawless she has no reason to speak out but she wants to wants to break the illusion the chipped paint peace they have forged because it is wrong, there is no peace here no tranquility only a strong sister and stronger one both with the same weakness.
Jake bursts in then, tears drying where he wiped them away eyes bright and he looks just like his daddy. Alli's throat closes she is so scared of this child this memory incarnate every time she sees him her heart beats too much things she doesn't want to see threaten to appear old demons stir absentmindedly.
His knee is a mess of red and grit the puppy in his arms whimpers and they are both so splendidly young. Cassie rushes over to her son like good mothers do, kneels to examine his scrape promises to make it better and as she takes him to the bathroom to the medicine cabinet that still looks like magic to him, Alli starts to cry.
They are slow tears, few but heavy and she hears Ethan coming inside with Emily but she can't stop them. Emily chatters away, oblivious. Somehow, Alli dries her eyes before Ethan makes it to the kitchen it seems like so long but it is moments sorry moments. She and Cassie and Ethan all remember all know what Jake doesn't know, what makes them so broken when he is there and it's not his fault. He is only a child a new being with no ideas of history.
He leaves because Alli cannot look at him cannot talk to him, he doesn't understand her doesn't understand why his mother always cries after aunt Alli comes but he hates it hates her too. He is cursed, not for ever but for now. He looks just like his daddy.
"Look at the cookies, Daddy!" Emily squeals as Ethan comes into the kitchen. He smiles warmly at Alli, Ethan is always so kind so warm so hopeful.
"They look scrumptious, sweetie. Did you help Mommy make them?"
Emily nods then squirms to be let down to run free on those novel little legs she's still growing into. She snatches a cookie from the counter with nimble little fingers maybe piano playing fingers one day like her Gramma. She is kind like Ethan and blonde like Cassie, a cherubic little girl with nothing but dreams and newness inside of her.
"Where's Cas?" Ethan asks as Emily dances around with her cookie her sugar crystal treasure. "I thought you two would be locked away in the sunroom by now."
"Jake skinned his knee, she went with him to clean it up."
Ethan frowns. "Ever since we got him that dog, he's falling all over the place." As if called, Bonnie bounds in to the room, no longer the timid puppy in Jake's arms but a bouncing bundle of energy. Emily chases after her, giggling that infectious toddler giggle as she goes.
"She seems like a handful," Alli says, smiling at the young things the hopeful things the whole things playing in this house living joyfully because they don't know another way.
"She is, but she makes Jake smile. That boy is a melancholy soul." Ethan looks older when he talks about Jake, his face worries in a way that adds years. Jake is the strange child the dark child the caramel colored baby with hazel eyes now growing now learning now confused.
"Have you told him?" Alli bites her lip glances furtively at the doorway where Jake could be with a Band-aid on his knee and that permanent glower on his face. He is old enough now to suspect but maybe not enough to piece it together maybe still trusting. They have to tell him one day but it is not Alli's place to say it is not her place to raise Cassie's children.
Ethan shakes his head, lips tight. He knew this time was coming but it was not what he thought of then back then when he made this decision it was different then it was brighter starker lovelier somehow. He was in love then, in love with a girl and all her problems and they shared the same tragedy once upon a time.
But Jake is only seven only young only barely aware of the horrors of the world. He is melancholy, yes, but not tortured not jaded not sleepless from nightmares. He is a strange little boy but just a little boy and Alli understands. She will always understand.
Cassie returns with freshly washed hands she smells of lemon soap the same lemon soap their mother used. Jake is gone off somewhere without the puppy Emily is smothering the puppy with sloppy toddler hugs. In her belly Alli feels familiar longing wanting wishing and she thinks maybe the promises Cole makes aren't so terrible maybe he would change if that promise came true.
Cassie and Ethan have an understanding moment, and Ethan leaves the women alone in the kitchen. Cassie looks at Alli with an expression that is not Cassie it is Cassidy it is serious and intimate like when they were children and everything was serious everything was life changing because life was so small. She wants Alli to get out, and that really is life changing.
"I know what he's like, Alli." She swallows, swallows pride or fear or maybe both maybe regret also. "I know what he does to the things he loves."
"It's not how you think," Alli whispers, defensive always defensive while inside she screams that she is lying it is just how Cassie thinks Cassie knows but she must defend her husband he is everything. "He supports me. He lets me write, that's all I ever really wanted."
It's not. It's nothing like she wanted but Cole is now Cole is present he is Same but strong but healthy and he wants her. That is the keystone the fulcrum the last straw: he wants her. The knowing keeps her close.
Cassie doesn't argue can't argue none of them got what they wanted really, not by the end of it. They all watched one night for the first summer star, whisper wishes poised on virgin lips and it fell from the sky their star descended headlong into twilight colored water. Each child sighed their deepest desires in hopes of being heard by something greater and their hearts promised to be true if only it would listen.
But in the end, everyone's a liar.
There is more speaking then, more words bubbling over a hardening wall. Alli doesn't feel them shoves them away with her tongue because they are fake saccharine sweet dripping onto the floor. She is lost Cassie is lost they are separating too suddenly and it is done.
"Johnny's gone," Cassie is saying but Alli does not know why. She knows of course she knows Johnny has been gone for years. Tears splash on the countertop in slow motion everything is slow motion blur her head is full of water maybe Alli is crying or maybe it is Cassie it does not matter it is done. Alli's lips move her tongue somersaults and words burst forth but they are unintelligible she is babbling Cassie is yelling now, angry-sad.
"Johnny's gone! Do you understand that?" She is hysterical confused frightened not angry and Alli sees Emily in the doorway on the verge of tears she is too young to know what is being meant only knows something is terribly wrong. Alli turns to her, arms outstretched but Cassie grabs her wrists with a wild look in her bright mud eyes and Alli wonders if her sister is going mad if Cassie is finally breaking down finally admitting her life is wrong all wrong.
"Stay away from my child. Get out of my house." Cassie shoves Alli away points toward the door and Alli goes she is afraid for Cassie so she goes. She climbs into Cole's truck drives away with a feeling cementing her stomach to her throat Cassie is breaking and something terrible will happen.