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 circ