House in the Woods
Kevin ran his fingers through the hair at the back of her neck while he described the place to her and to Mandy who was messing around in the back with the seat belt of her booster. Kevin Jr. was sacked out in his baby car seat, and it was about time; he had been inconsolable on both planes over. Nicole leaned into the dozen red roses Kevin had given her at the airport to catch their scent. It had been three months since he had left her and the kids in Vegas for his training on the oilrig, but finally, their family was together again.
Their plan had always been to leave Vegas. Nicole had never wanted to raise the kids there, and now that Kevin’s parents were gone, there was no reason to stay. They just needed to save enough money to get out. She took as many telemarketing shifts as she could, but Kevin couldn’t seem to hang on to any gig for long, only odd jobs he picked up here and there. More and more, he’d keep himself holed up in the apartment during the days, his mood worsening. It was like he had forgotten who he was, who Nicole knew he could be, and the farther away he got, the angrier and more unpredictable he became. Nothing Nicole did helped him shake it.
Their connection at Doyon Drilling seemed like the quickest solution. Once Kevin had income and purpose again, she knew things would get better for them. He would have to travel sometimes, and there was no question the work would be difficult, but the trade off was worth it. He left for Alaska just after Kevin Jr. was born.
Where the road narrowed, Kevin slowed and took a right onto a gravel driveway. Several yards ahead was a white-shingled rambler with three cement stairs leading up to a storm door that swung out, half-open, over a modest porch. The house sat on seven acres. There was nothing but forest and open space around them, tundra beyond that. And no neighbors either, except the Clarks next door who had sold them the place. They never would have been able to buy otherwise. Bob Clark had helped Kevin get hired at Doyon; he was the one that could make it easier for Kevin to get a contract once he proved himself.
Before Kevin had the keys out of the ignition, Mandy shrieked and unbuckled the seat belt of her booster. She leaped up the steps, scooted past the partly-open storm door, and charged into the house.
Nicole hoisted the baby car seat out of the car, and Kevin got their suitcases. “You can leave the door open like that?”
“No, I need to fix that lock again.”
The place was about twelve hundred square feet, double the size of their apartment in Vegas, and smelled like must and dirt and old beer. The bedrooms had wood paneled walls with mirrors on thin sliding closet doors and were mostly bare. Kevin had gotten some furniture second-hand; Nicole brought the baby into the smallest bedroom and laid him in a lightweight portable crib. She hesitated a moment as she looked at Kevin Jr.’s sleeping face, his lips puckering between soft puffy cheeks into a pout, and then she closed the door softly behind her.
Mandy jumped off her new bed where she had been bouncing and catapulted herself into Kevin’s arms. “Can we go next door and see the sled dogs, Daddy?”
He swung her around. “We’ll have to wait until the Clarks are home, Buttercup.”
Sled dogs. When Kevin first told Nicole the Clarks kept four of them, she thought he was kidding. It was so different from their old life, so storybook Alaska, she could hardly believe it.
Nicole unzipped her coat on the way over to Kevin who was stamping snow from his boots on the doormat. She shushed Mandy who was still screeching in bionic preschool volume about all the bedrooms.
Kevin’s arms had gotten bigger in the three months he had been up on the rig, and he looked like a local in his green flannel shirt. His jaw was rough when she ran her hand along it, but underneath, his skin still looked like he’d been dipped in honey.
“Thank you,” she said, moving against him, “it’s perfect for us.” Her mouth found his. She felt their kiss deepen; his arms tighten around her. For the first time in months she let her body rest.
She breathed him in.
“Nic, they moved the start day up a week for my rig. I’m going in two days.”
She pulled away. “Two days? But you said it was two weeks on, two weeks off.”
“That was when I was in Beta group, they just switched me to Alpha. You remember, I told you that.”
“But we just got here. Can’t you tell them you need to go later?”
“I can’t go later, I have to stay with the team. That’s how it works. How I get the choice gigs.”
“Nic, it’ll be all right, it’s good news.” He kissed her hand. “You’ll see.”
Nicole moved to the open front door for some air. Older snow, its crisp surface marked with air holes, clung in icy patches on the ground. In the clearing directly in front of the house only three spindly Aspen trees had been allowed to grow, the rest were stumps. A house the color of Comet cleaning powder sat one hundred yards away to the left, a chain link fence behind it, a porch in front, woods all around. The trees and houses were flat and cold in the sky’s dim light. The last warmth from the sun had flickered out. It was quiet, like the land was holding its breath waiting for night to fall.
After she put Mandy to bed, Nicole snuggled next to Kevin who held the cooing baby. How was it possible that the man was more handsome now than when they had met? She had been taking care of everything in Vegas by herself for so long, to be with him now, the relief she felt to have them all together again for this fresh start just like she’d planned, made her giddy. She swaddled the baby, put him in his crib, a
nd rested her hand gently on his chest until his body sank into the mattress and his breath slowed.
She padded back into the master bedroom, her insides fizzing around again. Kevin’s lips were on hers before she made it to the bed, their bodies wrapped around each other in the yellow light of the bedside lamp. The stubble on his jaw scratched her skin as his mouth traveled over all of her. She moved into him, grateful for the weight of his body on hers.
It had always been this way. When they were draped together, the warm scent of him all around her, the part of him she couldn’t reach, the part he reserved for himself, seemed to melt away. She could forget how she always wanted more of him, how when he did shift away or fall asleep, she felt it like a kind of loss, a hollow place inside.
They woke after in a late night daze, arms and legs a warm tangle. Nicole switched out the bedside lamp, and they got under the covers and found each other again before finally, they fell into a heavy sleep.
Just after midnight, Nicole woke to a loud keening animal sound from outside, a dog’s late night lament. It was sharp in her ears and sounded close. There was barking in excited pitches. One after another the barks came at Nicole, deep, loud, and agitated. Kevin slept through it. The barking turned plaintive, insistent. And there was a rhythm to it; after one dog started, the others would join until they quieted. Then one would begin again, and the others would join once more.
The baby started crying. Mandy called out. In the dark, Nicole felt her way to Mandy’s room and shushed her, told her there was nothing to be scared of, it was just the sled dogs. She left her to get the baby and rocked him while she sat with Mandy again and rubbed her back.
There was a clanking metal sound, and the barking turned into growling. Deep, low, and snarling, it rumbled through the dark to their house.
Kevin shuffled into Mandy’s room. “What’s wrong?”
“The dogs woke them up.”
There was another loud growl and then whimpering.
“What’s going on out there?” Nicole whispered.
“Probably their son, Jack, feeding them or something.”
“In the middle of the night?”
Outside, there was shouting and then a high-pitched yelp of pain. The bang of a gate.
Kevin slumped against Nicole while she rocked the baby and tucked Mandy in again, then he went back to sleep. Nicole opened the vinyl roller shades, but couldn’t see anything in the empty night. She got back into the bed with Kevin and fell asleep as the wind picked up, listening to the dogs whining and the rattling of a chain on a gate.
The next day, after Nicole nursed the baby, they drove into Palmer. Momentary sunlight flickered between Quaking Aspen and Red Alder as their truck wound its way to the main road. Nicole couldn’t recall ever breathing anything as sharp as the March air in Alaska. When she took her first breath outside after having been inside the car or the grocery, or at the church where she grabbed a flyer for a weekly moms group, she felt the shock of it in her lungs.
On Sunday morning, Nicole strapped the baby to her chest in a carrier and walked with Mandy and Kevin across the dirt space between the two houses. To thank Mr. Clark for helping them, Nicole brought the blueberry muffins she had baked before the kids had woken, and Kevin grabbed two cases of beer.
The Clark’s property looked merely disorganized from a distance, but as they neared it, Nicole saw it was strewn with a heap of torn window screens, the white square top of a camper, an overturned plastic trash can, an old car engine, and a bunch of chewed up sneakers. A “Private Property” sign in orange and black had been stuck near the drive. Beyond it, in front of the house, Nicole counted three “No Trespassing” signs in white letters on black. Dogs barked from behind the chain link fence at the back of the house as they approached.
Kevin knocked. Nicole glanced at the front window, but could only see the black garbage bag taped over it. Kevin knocked again. The dogs started in earnest, a crescendo of barks exploded into the air. The gate rattled, and Nicole could see the dogs’ dark snouts turned sideways, sniffing beneath it.
Nicole shifted her weight and adjusted Kevin Jr. in the baby carrier. Kevin shrugged his shoulders and knocked even louder.
The door opened. Mrs. Clark stared at the baby attached to Nicole’s chest. She was taller than Nicole; a faded, baggy blue sweatshirt that might have once fit hung open around her neck, revealing a jutting collarbone. A handkerchief held her straight, gray hair away from her face. Her light eyes shifted to Nicole without signs of comprehension.
Kevin smiled and introduced the family.
“You brought the whole brood over,” Mrs. Clark said, her hand still on the inside doorknob.
Nicole laughed a little. “Can we come in and say hi?”
“I don’t see why not.” She opened the door and watched as they entered. The sound of cheering and referee whistles blared from a TV somewhere nearby inside the dark house. Mandy held tightly to Nicole’s hand, her head pressed into her side.
Cigarette smoke hung in the air, mingling with the smell of bacon grease. Mr. Clark, a thick, heavy-cheeked man with olive-colored skin and dark, wrinkled circles under his eyes, sat holding a beer in an armchair. His son, Jack, who looked about seventeen, sprawled on a sagging denim couch opposite, his boots resting on a coffee table thick with old magazines and cans of Pabst and an overflowing ashtray. Nicole squinted and coughed as the smoke hit her eyes.
“Kevin’s here,” Mrs. Clark announced over the cheering from the crowd on TV.
“I can see that.” Mr. Clark’s eyes darted from Mrs. Clark to Kevin. “Saw some of the fellas from your rig over in town last night. Thought you’d be there.”
“The family just got here, I’ve been settling them in. This is Nicole.”
“Hi. I made these for you this morning.” Nicole smiled at Mr. Clark and offered the plate.
“Muffins,” Bob looke
d at his wife and then Jack. “How about that.” His deep-set brown eyes grazed over her. “Sweetie, you can set them down right there, if you can find a place.”
Mandy rubbed her eyes and peered through the fog in the living room, the baby kicked his legs against Nicole’s abdomen and whined. Nicole lifted him out of the carrier.
“Here,” Mr. Clark said, gesturing for her to bring the baby to his waiting hands.
“Oh, you don’t have to,” Nicole said.
“It’s fine,” he said, gesturing again. Nicole brought him over, and Mr. Clark held the baby up facing him. “Look at this little guy. You want a beer, Kevin? Ellen, get a beer. Jack, make some room, move your fat ass.”
Jack shot his father a look from under his dark eyebrows. He had the same thick, short hair, but his skin was smooth and doughy. He lowered one foot off the table and then the other and shifted to the far side of the couch. Nicole sat, with Mandy next to her, watching Kevin Jr. in Mr. Clark’s arms. Jack lit another cigarette.
Mrs. Clark rested her hand on Kevin’s back and delivered him a beer in her other hand. “We’re all out of the Alaskan Amber you brought over last week.”
“Kevin, you hear anything yet?” Mr. Clark asked.
“Looks like I might be up for Roughneck, a month on, a month off,” Kevin said. Nicole turned toward him, she hadn’t heard about this.
“Mommy,” Mandy tugged while the men continued talking.
A dog howled outside.
“Mommy, can I have a muffin?”
“Jack, excuse me, can you please pass the plate?”
Slumped against the couch armrest, Jack grabbed a muffin with his smoking hand and handed it over to Mandy. A little ash from his cigarette fell onto it.
“Here, honey, have this one.” Nicole handed a fresh muffin to Mandy, avoiding eye contact with Jack. There was a rattle outside, a bang as a trashcan tipped over and then growling, close, from several dogs.
“Hey, shit-for-brains,” Mr. Clark yelled at Jack, causing Kevin Jr., who Mr. Clark now had facing the room, to start in his arms, “those dogs get out again?”
Jack looked back at him frozen, his eyes alert for the first time. He sprinted through the kitchen.
“That’s right,” Mr. Clark called after him, a thick ropey vein appearing in the middle of his forehead, “you better run.”
“Out! Out of there! Get back!” They heard Jack yelling, and he slammed the back door behind him.
Mr. Clark leaned back and pulled out another cigarette.
“I’ll take him.” Nicole said, swooping over to get the baby.
“You like that house, Nicole?”
She cuddled Kevin Jr. to her, adjusting him in her arms. “It’s nice to finally have space.” She patted Mandy on the arm while looking for a way to leave without being rude. Mandy had finished her muffin and was watching the TV. “It’s so far away from everything. But it’ll be great. I just need to paint it, add some curtains, fix it up a little, make it feel like home.” Nicole bounced Kevin Jr. lightly on her leg.
“We lived there for years. It felt like home, didn’t it, Ellen?”
Mrs. Clark’s glassy eyes stayed on the baby. If she answered, Nicole didn’t hear her.
“Hey, Kevin,” Nicole said making eye contact, “I think I need to take Kevin Jr. home for his bottle, he’s fussing.” Nicole took Mandy’s hand and edged her way around the coffee table. “I’m sorry we can’t visit longer.”
“Bob, I’ll stay a while if that’s all right.”
“You’re not coming?” Nicole asked.
“Some of the other guys from the rig are coming over.” He squeezed her hand. “I’ll be home a little later, babe.” Kevin led Nicole and the kids to the front door; Mrs. Clark’s eyes lingered on their hug goodbye like she was looking for something of hers they might have taken.
Nicole tried to get Kevin to follow her outside where they could talk, but he missed the signal. The door closed.
Nicole’s steps seemed too small as she crossed the space between the houses with the baby in her arms and Mandy trailing behind her. When she unlocked the front door, it was dimmer inside than she remembered. She clicked on lamp after lamp, but the house seemed to swallow up the light.
Kevin got back at three that afternoon, during the baby’s nap, smelling like hamburgers, smoke, and beer.
“Hey, babe.” He went over and gave Nicole a kiss.
Nicole didn’t answer.
“I said hello.”
She stared at him from the sofa. “Hi.”
Mandy came out of her room singing a song she made up about Alaska. “Daddy!”
“At least somebody’s happy I’m home.”
Mandy did loops around Kevin while she sang.
“What was that was all about?” Nicole asked.
“What?” He kicked off his boots. “Mandy, quit it.”
“I thought we were spending your last afternoon together.”
“Yeah, I would have liked to. I said knock it off, Mandy.”
“What do you mean, ‘really’?”
“You would have liked to. You just couldn’t tear yourself away from Creepville?”
p; He gripped Mandy by her shoulders. “I told you to STOP DOING THAT,” he said halting her, his face close to hers.
Mandy looked from Kevin to Nicole. Nicole looked at Mandy and then at Kevin. After another moment, he let Mandy go. “I’m going to pack.”
Nicole settled Mandy in her room with her dolls and followed Kevin into the bedroom where he was tossing undershirts and socks into a duffel bag.
She watched him from the door, her arms crossed over her chest. “Why did you stay all afternoon?”
“If Clark puts in a good word for me, I move up.”
“So you have to get drunk.”
“Give me a freaking break, Nicole. Two days and you’re already starting.” He slammed the dresser drawer closed. “We went over this, right? Every one of the guys on my team wants Roughneck, every one of them. This is how I get in.” Kevin zipped up his bag and tossed it onto the rug. “You’re just angry because you don’t want me to go.” He flopped onto the bed. “It’s all right, I understand.”
He pulled his guitar over from its stand near the window and played the first few chords of the song he’d written for their wedding. “Come over here,” he said looking up at her from under his baseball cap. He strummed some more. “Nic, don’t be that way.” He put the guitar aside and patted the blanket next to him. “Come on. Lock the door, and come over here.”
She had drifted away from the door and stood near the foot of the bed, staring at him. She played with a loose thread there.
“Suit yourself then.” He rolled over and rubbed his eyes with the palm of his hand. His voice faded. “But you know you’re going to miss me.”
“You’re unbelievable,” she said, shaking her head.
“Get over here.” He reached for her hand, and after a moment, she let him pull her down toward him.
Just before dinnertime, Kevin’s ride came to pick him up. Nicole put the baby down on a blanket and coaxed Mandy, who had suction-cupped herself to Kevin’s back, to sit down and eat her Mac n’ Cheese.
Kevin clasped his hands around the small of Nicole’s back and pulled her close.
“I’m not ready to say goodbye,” she said looking up at him.
He brushed the hair away from her eyes and kissed her. He picked up his bag. “I’ll call when I can. Get into town, go to that church group.”
After the truck turned onto the road, Nicole went back inside and closed the storm door behind her. It drifted slowly out again, hanging half-open for anything to get in. She balled up a tissue and wedged it between the doorframe and the door and locked it shut.
Nicole didn’t see the Clarks the first few days after Kevin left, but she could always tell when they arrived home because the barking next door became frantic. Mandy still wanted to meet the dogs; she talked about them all the time. About a week into Kevin’s rotation, Nicole sat on the porch with the baby while Mandy, zipped up in her jacket, her fingers red with cold, built a stone path with rocks she had collected from under the melting snow. Kevin Jr. cooed as he grabbed Nicole’s long hair, and he giggled every time she feigned surprise at catching him with a pudgy fistful near his mouth.
When they heard Jack’s Jeep, all of them turned their heads to the road at the same time. Jack screeched up, put it in park, and jumped out. Mandy stood up with a rock in each hand. She threw the rocks down and ran towards Jack. “Can we see the dogs?”
“Mandy, get back here!”
“Can we see them?” Mandy shouted again, gaining on Jack.
Nicole held Kevin Jr. tightly as she caught up to them.
“If you have a minute,” Nicole said, breathing hard, “She’s never seen a team of sled dogs.”
Jack, a hand on his porch railing, looked from mother to daughter with dead eyes. “They’re just dogs. We don’t run them.” When Nicole and Mandy made no move to leave, he shook his head and turned towards the fence with them following. “There are just two now. The others got hurt.”
As she approached the fence, the smell of dog excrement rolled over Nicole in waves. Green plastic board ran four feet high around the circumference of the enclosure. A chain with a dangling padlock secured it shut. Piles of dog droppings were strewn around the dirt yard. Two skinny dogs barreled over to Jack, barking loudly. The first was a tall, gray husky; the second, a black and white, limping, her right hind paw caked with dried blood.
“Sit!” Jack commanded. He opened the padlock and swung the gate open halfway. Mandy and Nicole stayed behind him. The dogs’ muzzles sniffed the air, searching, their cloudy eyes focused, as they shifted from front paw to front paw while also trying to edge closer to Jack and the open gate. Their fur was matted and missing in some places. Their skin hugged their ribs, rippling over each boney arch in a shiver. Yellow discharge ran from the injured dog’s right eye. Both dogs whined and sniffed, saliva falling in steady drops from their muzzles and gums. They did not look at all like the majestic dogs she had seen in photographs.
“What happened to that one’s paw?” Mandy asked.
“She was trying to get more than her share. This guy put her in her place.”
“They fight over food?” Nicole asked.
“Only when they’re fed.” He was looking down at the dogs as they furiously searched the ground, near Nicole and Mandy’s shoes, then the baby’s feet, for something to lick, to eat. Just as Jack moved to close the gate, the big, grey dog slid past his legs, halfway out of the enclosure. Jack barred the dog’s way with his boot. Once the dog started to back up, Jack kicked at his muzzle. The dog tried once more, and Jack kicked at him again. The dog ducked low and whimpered. “Back!” Jack shouted. He slammed the gate.
“Will she be able to pull the sled?” Mandy asked.
Jack looked at her like she had just appeared. “What?”
“The hurt one.”
“Yeah,” he said, and started toward the house. “Sure.”
“Don’t you need to put the lock on the gate?” Nicole asked and then felt immediately guilty. The poor dogs would be lucky to escape.
Jack stopped. Without looking at Nicole he came back, clicked the lock into place, and stalked back to the house.
Nicole lingered at the fence. She watched the dogs until Mandy reached for her hand and pulled her away to go home. But even as she drew the shades that night and got the kids ready for bed, Nicole thought of the dogs. The look in their eyes stayed with her.
That week she and the kids drove the hour for the church playgroup in Palmer. The women there were all originally from Alaska. They looked like they could chop a hundred trees, fire a shotgun, and turn around and make their own granola. And they all knew each other. Nicole wiped her lipstick off and tied her blonde hair back beneath a baseball cap, but she still felt out of place.
The second time she went, she did get to talk to this woman, Jill, who seemed to know everybody, and suggested they exchange phone numbers. But when the playtime was over and Nicole and Mandy were cleaning up big plastic dinosaurs with missing teeth and broken tails, Jill waved and left with the group. It was fine, Nicole told herself, it would be fine. These things took time.
That spring she re-grouted the tub and sink, and painted the bathroom. She lay down new linoleum in the kitchen and re-stained the table. When she went to town, she made sure to take lots of time running her errands, so she could meet more people before she and the kids made the long drive back home. But conversations were rushed and almost always interrupted. She called friends back in Vegas, but they rarely answered their phones.
Nicole counted down the hours whenever Kevin was due home. His return gave shape to her life. She’d get the house ready and bake, and she always put on something nice to wear. When he was back, she stayed in bed with him as long as she could before the kids needed her. She made pancake breakfasts for him and the kids, and huge dinners. Sometimes she got Kevin to go on a drive or hike, but mostly he preferred to take it easy on his time off. Or he would visit the Clarks. He went over there more and more now that it was down to just him and one other guy up for Roughneck. But she tried to be grateful; she had never seen him so motivated. His five months on the rig represented the longest he’d ever held onto a job.
The nights were hardest when Kevin was away. At the end of the day, after she’d locked up the windows and doors and put the kids to bed, she’d send an email or two if the Internet wasn’t down, or sit in front of the TV for reruns, but it didn’t stop the unsettled, empty place inside her from growing. She was unnerved by the amount of night around her, the sharp cries of the dogs trapped in their pen, waiting for someone to come.
During Kevin’s third trip away, she took the note she had written and hoisted the jumbo bag of dog food she’d bought on sale out of her trunk and lugged it over to the Clark’s back porch. It didn’t look like they were home but, quickly, just in case, she tore open the waxy paper and scooped out a third of the bag. She tossed the kibble through the cracks in the fence and covered her ears until the dogs stopped their barking long enough to eat. She left the remainder of the bag and the note on the Clark’s back porch. Two days later, the opened bag of food was back on her front steps, unused.
In June, Kevin got the news: he was moving up to Roughneck, a month on, a month off, starting immediately. He wouldn’t be home until the afternoon of Mandy’s fifth birthday.
The night before he left, Nicole prepared a bon voyage dinner in honor of his promotion. With a lump in her throat, she moved around her small kitchen, roasting chickens and baking bread. Late that night, after they’d finished their bottle of champagne, Kevin kissed her and said he’d see her a little later; he had a case of beer for Bob Clark, to thank him for the help.
Lying in the middle of the bed, not expecting sleep, she left the blackout shades up in her bedroom and watched leaf shadows shimmy across her walls in the withering light. Little pieces of her felt like they were pulling apart; her chest shook with the effort of holding them all together.
When Kevin woke up the next day and came into the kitchen, he had only a few hours before he had to leave.
“Morning, guys,” he said.
Nicole scrubbed at the bacon gristle stuck to the pan.
“Thanks for letting me sleep.”
Nicole put the pan on the shelf and slammed the cabinet door shut.
“Anything you need me to do before I go?”
She walked out of the room.
She moved into the bedroom and snapped the sheets off the mattress.
He came in. “I’m talking to you.”
“What’s your problem?”
“What’s my problem?” She threw the pile of sheets to the floor. “You’re never here is my problem!”
“Hey, back up. This whole thing was your idea, remember?”
“Spending all your time at the Clarks was not my idea!”
“I’m busting my ass for this family. For you!”
“You are leaving us for a month. A month!”
Mandy came into their bedroom. “Mommy?”
“Out.” Kevin said.
“But I wanted to ask Mommy—”
“I’m going to count to three.”
“But, Daddy—” He moved toward her and her eyes filled with tears. She stammered, “I need to ask—”
“That’s it.” He picked h
er up and put her in her room and slammed the door. “Stay there until I tell you to get out.”
Nicole shook her head. She walked out of the room to get the baby who had started crying from his crib.
“It’s only a month, Nicole!” Kevin yelled after her.
When his ride pulled up two hours later, Kevin brought his bag to the door. After he put his jacket on, he brushed Nicole’s cheek with the back of his hand. “We’ll talk about it when I come home, all right?” He hugged the three of them goodbye and left. Nicole sat on the sofa, staring at the road, until Mandy asked her about dinner.
Nicole had unpacked all the boxes, and organized and painted the house, and now there was almost nothing to do. She made weekly trips to Palmer to meet Jill and the other ladies she was becoming friendly with from the church, but she didn’t talk with them about how hard it was living so far from anyone, how slowly the last three and a half weeks on her own had gone. They weren’t those kinds of friends, or at least, no one seemed to talk like that.
With summer, the light in the sky hung on until it dwindled into the faint glow of early morning and then started all over again. At night, after Kevin had called for their brief conversation, she sat in front of the TV and drank beer until she got buzzed enough or it got dark enough to try to sleep. There seemed to be only bits left of what she and Kevin had once had. She didn’t know what she was trying to build any more.
The night before Mandy’s birthday, the day Kevin was finally due home, Nicole sat on the porch. She looked up and out of the woods to the farthest place her eyes could reach, where the tops of the tallest evergreens scaled the sky, their dark jagged outlines silhouetted against a gray-white shot through with the streaky gold of perpetual sunset. They looked so high and so far away, the space above them so endless. Nicole felt her heart skip. She was struck with a feeling of floating above, of getting away. It formed an ache inside her.
The next morning, Nicole drove the hour to Palmer with the kids. She got some more flowers to plant in the front yard, and she splurged on good wine and the best cuts of beef available. Jill and her family were coming over for Mandy’s birthday celebration; they still hadn’t ever met Kevin. Nicole hummed to herself all day while she baked the cake and cleaned the house. Then she painted Mandy’s nails and her own in celebration.
The night was warm, and they sat outside while the kids ran around. Jill and her husband were from Anchorage; they wanted to hear all about Vegas. They got Nicole to talk about her old telemarketing days—the crazy stories she’d heard from the showgirls who worked alongside her when their gigs dried up—and how small her and Kevin’s apartment was, how they had to keep the air conditioning going on high so much their mouths tasted like Freon, how Kevin insisted on BBQ-ing all their dinners with a tiny Foreman grill on their teeny, stamp-sized balcony.
Kevin Jr. fell asleep in Nicole’s arms, and she kissed him and put him in his crib while the big kids stayed up late playing hide-and-seek behind the trees. Later, when it started to drizzle, they all went inside, leaving the doors and windows open for air.
They held dinner as long as they could that night, waiting for Kevin to get back from his review. After he called to say he would definitely be there, but was running late, Nicole served their dinner, putting aside large helpings of everything for Kevin. And then, checking the road one last time, she lit Mandy’s birthday candles and served the cake.
By eleven, everybody was full and dazed. They had finished the wine and picked at the leftover meat and cheese. Jill’s little girl and Mandy had fallen asleep on the sofa, leaning against each other. Nicole and Jill gently dislodged their little daughters, and, wobbling under the weight of the sleeping girls, said good night. Nicole carried Mandy to her room, and her friends let themselves out.
Nicole propped open Kevin Jr.’s door to get some air circulating now that it was quiet. His head was turned toward her, his sweet, feathery breath blowing softly in and out. She switched off his lamp and went down the hall to turn off the other lights in the house. Nicole had forgotten how much she loved having people over; to have friends with her for a whole evening felt like being alive. Jill and her husband said they couldn’t believe Kevin had bought a house so far away from Palmer. Nicole was going to talk to him about that tonight, if he ever got home. They would have to at least move to Sutton where Jill lived.
When Nicole returned to the living room to lock up the door, the blinking light on her cell phone caught her eye. She had missed a call from Kevin. When she called back, he didn’t answer. His voicemail message was hard to follow; garbled music and shouts sounded in the background, but she heard something about a bar, still being in Anchorage, Bob Clark and some of the guys on the board, “tell Mandy I love her…celebrate tomorrow.”
It felt like she’d been punched. She slammed her phone onto the table. She picked it up and listened to the message again. She threw the phone against the wall. She was so stupid. So stupid to have thought he would make it back for them. For her. So little was left of what she had wanted, what she had believed. Everything was moving away from her. She tried to catch her breath, but she couldn’t calm through her tears. The living room blurred up around her, and she let her body drop to the couch. Her breath finally slowed enough for her to sleep.
A noise woke her. A cry.
She sat up. Her scalp tingled. Something wasn’t right.
“Kevin?” she called out, but there was no answer.
The front door was swung wide open. Mud was tracked in on the floor. From near the bedrooms, she heard a breathy, lapping sound. A low grunting. Her stomach clenched.
She hadn’t locked up the house.
She crept down the hall and flipped on Mandy’s light. Mandy had thrown her blankets off and was asleep, soundly. Nicole covered her back up.
From the hallway, Nicole heard a scratching sound, like fingernails on wood. It grew louder as she got closer to the baby’s room. In the dark, she fumbled for the switch to Kevin Jr.’s brass lamp. When she clicked on the light, there was a growl.
The crib had been pushed to the wall. Kevin Jr.’s arm stuck out from the bars, the sleeve of his yellow-footed pajamas was torn. Next to him, the big gray dog from the Clarks’ pushed his snout between the bars, he pulled at the mattress with his teeth. The black and white dog crouched at
the foot of the crib, watching him. Keeping one eye on Nicole, the gray dog sniffed at Kevin Jr. as he slept, licking at his exposed skin.
Nicole reached for the lamp on the table behind her. Ripping the cord out of the wall, she flipped it upside down. At her movement, the gray dog bared his teeth. The black and white dog inched closer to Kevin Jr., and the gray dog snarled at her. His mouth opened around Kevin Jr.’s arm. Just as it was about to close, Nicole lifted the lamp high and slammed it into the gray dog’s accordion ribs. He yelped, but did not move from the baby. Nicole raised the lamp above her head, and she struck at his neck, lashed again at his ribs. Whimpering now, he cowered to the wood floor. Nicole swung to face the black and white dog, but she had shrunk to the corner.
Nicole’s hands were trembling; going numb. She tried to make her fingers move, but they felt nerveless, joint-less, as if filled only with air. She had to let the lamp drop to the floor.
Shrieking, she kicked at the dogs with her feet. Her bare toes registered their sunken hindquarters, the bristle of their fur, the feel of their bony bodies’ loose, sliding skin.
She drove the dogs to the front door. The gray dog made it outside, but his breathing was staggered. He managed the porch steps, but after a few limping paces he slowed, tracking Nicole with pale, desperate eyes. The black and white dog paused next to him.
Tails and haunches tucked low, the dogs lifted their snouts and breathed in the dim morning. The gray dog coughed a hacking sound. His eyes returned to Nicole. She stared back. After a moment, he turned and began a ragged trot toward the Clarks’. The black and white dog followed, limping.
Nicole stepped off the porch. She shouted for them to stop. They quickened their pace, and she found herself going after them, moving faster, yelling. She caught up to them, and they swerved to avoid her, but she cut them off. Each time, she blocked their path to the Clarks’.
She had them moving away from her now. Tears streaming down her face, she chased them out to where the stand of trees bordering the property began. She ran them into the thicket, screaming at them to go.
Later, when Nicole let herself think about what had happened to all of them, how she’d left Kevin and how Mandy watched her with worried eyes, when she felt like she couldn’t breathe, she thought about the dogs.
They had wanted, needed so badly. They must have crept out of their pen that night sniffing the soil, the detritus, for something to eat, garbage, a bone, an old carrot. Smells must have poured into their dry, black snouts, saturating their starved brains. Their paws touching lightly down and pushing back against the packed mud, they came searching for sustenance. And, then, on the wind: the scent of another house. The smell of other lives. Nicole would remember how she had watched them moving farther and farther away that last morning until finally, free and wild with hunger, their bodies disappeared into the woods.