The Places You Go When You’re Alive

I walked into the kitchen and peered through the sliding door. Brad stood on the deck. The night had sucked him into a time machine that spit him back out looking more worn and tired than ever before. He rubbed his face and held a jack knife in his right hand. The kind my father used to carry when he hunted. The blade faced the outside of his thigh and he blinked wildly.

Fiction by Sarah Walker

Brad’s face looked like mine. His cheekbones were high, harshly sticking out under his eyes. His beard was long and dirty looking. He sat beside me at the bar, and after ordering a drink he rubbed a hand down his face. I figured we felt the same. Tired. For no reason at all, I was always tired.

I never went to Cleary’s on the weekends when it was busy. Tuesday, Wednesday nights I sat there, the quiet in the bar the same as being home. For some reason sitting before the bartender who never said more than two words to me, but watched with a certain pity that burnt through the skin on my face, felt better than being alone. Besides Doctor Rork, he was the only person I consistently saw.

 Brad and I talked for an hour that night, and I knew the bartender was trying to listen as he wiped down the tables, scrubbed dirty glasses in the deep metal sink under the wooden bar top. Brad told me he was from Scranton and had moved to Forest City a few years ago with his girlfriend Vicki. She was off doing her own thing for the night. Eventually, he leaned in close so I smelled his thick cigarette breath and asked if I knew where to get any powder. I told him I didn’t, and he said it didn’t have to be coke. Anything that would help him feel better. So I bought him another drink.

“You’re good shit,” he told me, folding his large hands together and stretching his arms out in front of his chest. He was my age, in his mid-twenties, but his hands looked old like my father’s. He wrapped a wrinkled hand around the glass, finished the drink, and said it again. “You’re good shit.”

Later on I offered to drive him home. He told me I couldn’t because he and Vicki had been living out of their car for the last few months, stacking stone at the quarry in the next town over and saving money so they’d eventually have a home. I took the opportunity then that I hoped they would never see as an opportunity, but a rare kindness. I told him I had a spare bedroom. A good size and empty. They didn’t have to pay rent, they just had to pay the electric bill. I didn’t tell him about our family farm that had been signed over to Cabot Oil & Gas and the thousands of dollars from the fracking that my parents split between my sister June and me each month. I didn’t tell Brad that he could give the money a purpose I never saw coming.

After my offer, he blinked. “Are you an angel or my new best friend?”

I laughed. “Maybe I’m both.”

Brad and Vicki spent their last night in the car, and the next morning their green Corolla was parked outside my garage. With the garage doors lifted, my new Lamborghini looked like a joke that wasn’t funny.

Vicki stepped inside the house first. A blue duffle bag hung over her shoulder. She ran her dirty hands over the granite countertops in the kitchen, her mouth opened so wide that I saw the metal fillings in her back teeth. Her face looked like a child’s. Her cheeks were flushed. Her bangs fell above her wide eyes that looked bigger than they were. She turned to Brad, dropped her bag at her feet, and wrapped her arms around his neck. She wore a down jacket, even though it was spring, the air sticky with the constant rain. You could see her thinness, her frailty, even in the big coat.

I couldn’t hear what she said with her face in Brad’s collarbone. Something about love, something about luck. Brad sniffed, kissed her neck.

“I’ll show you upstairs,” I said to them.

Neither one looked at me. But I felt all right standing to the side, watching Brad move his hand up and down her back.

People seldom entered my house, let alone stayed for as long as I felt Vicki and Brad would stay. Six months after I had bought the house, my parents came over for the first time. They came with June, who forced them to leave the comfort of their quiet, retired lives.

Soon after the farm sold, the royalties from the fracking flooded our bank accounts, and a plan fell into place for June. She met Dave at work. When she started dating him we went months without seeing each other. I figured it was only a matter of time before they got married, started a family. At first I dwelled on how disconnected from my sister I had become, and how I was possibly at fault, but then I remembered how easily she had accepted the change that took ahold of our lives. She was able to forget the land we had spent our lives cultivating and appreciate our new wealth. No one seemed to care that now, without the land and farm, my life had turned into a deserted home, a dried up well.

Before letting June and my parents inside my house for the first time, I looked through the window of the door. June stood straight, a stiff smile on her face, looking around the front yard, down at the driveway. She walked silently through my big, empty house. If I was a different kind of man, I would have pulled her aside and asked her to tell me what I figured she thought: I was spending the gas money in ridiculous ways. I didn’t need this space, the new sports car. I would have told her I needed her help. I didn’t know where my compulsions came from, but I didn’t know what else to do with the money. But I watched her judge me and let it fill me with the shame I had learned to let in and most days, ignore. After that day, my parents hadn’t come over again. June would randomly show up, but most times I sat inside with the lights off, pretending I wasn’t home.

In the kitchen, Brad stopped rubbing Vicki’s back. She let go of him, too, and turned her head toward me. Her bangs were pushed to one side of her forehead, and her blue eyes held mine. They looked wet. She unzipped her jacket and walked past me. The jacket flapped open as she walked through the living room, already seeming to know her way around.

For a moment, I wished that my parents, that June, could see how different things looked with Vicki and Brad’s beat-up luggage sitting in the kitchen, their dirty fingerprints on the countertops.

I wondered how Vicki stacked stone at a quarry with a body like hers. Later, Brad told me she only stacked Colonial pallets. “They’re little stones that lie around the quarry,” he said. “It’s so easy, a child could do it.”

After work that spring and summer they both walked through the door with sweat glistening on their exposed skin. They drank beer or whiskey before, during, and after dinner. If we planned to do something other than sit at the table for the night, sometimes they snorted lines of cocaine off the countertops. It was peculiar watching them go from tired, to alive and loose. Eventually, as we sat at the dinner table, their sweaty skin dried. I could always smell them. A damp, rotten odor came out of them like steam. Their boozy breath lingered across the table as the night went on.

I never did the cocaine, but I drank with them on those nights they came home from the quarry. I expected something to crack open. For the same hopeful air that seemed to fill them, to fill me. Sometimes it did, but sometimes the alcohol made my mind wild.

One night, I sat at the table with the whiskey concoction Brad had made me, and for the first time, they inquired about the house, my life and money.

Brad had the same whiskey drink as me. He sniffed it before taking a sip. “What do you do here all day? You got some kind of at home business we don’t know about?”

Vicki chimed in. “This house is fancy. It must have cost a fortune.”

Her gaze moved from my face, to my chest, then back to my face. The look was easy to read: You’re not anything special. What gives?

I took a long sip of the whisky. “It wasn’t a fortune. And I don’t have to work. My family owns a lot of land.” When I had met Brad, he said they had lived in the area for a few years, so I waited for them to catch on, but they only stared at me with glassy, droopy eyes. “Most of our farmland is leased to Cabot, the oil and gas company. So we’ve been getting money from the natural gas that’s sucked out from under our fields.”

Brad clapped his hands together. “No shit?”

Vicki hit his arm with the back of her hand. She watched me and circled her index finger around her whiskey glass. “What’s that like? Getting a bunch of free money?”

I picked up my drink but didn’t sip it. I held out my hand, motioning to the kitchen—clean and lifeless until they had moved in. She concentrated on my face, then bobbed her head, which told me she understood. She wouldn’t press for more, even though she wanted to.

It fell silent, and soon she turned to Brad, said it was his turn to put gas in their car the next morning. He wagged a finger in her face. “No way. I paid for your lunch last week. That was the deal.”

I stared beyond them, out the back screen door in the kitchen and thought of bad things that would happen to the people I loved the most if I didn’t get up and do something with my life. I imagined the farm house my parents still lived in catching fire, my parents asleep and burning too, their bodies nothing but charred, flat mummies. I imagined June dying in a car crash before I could tell her the way I felt. These imagined episodes weren’t their punishments, they were reminders that I had lost the people closest to me, but that death could make things even worse.

I hadn’t realized how hard I was squeezing my glass until it broke in my hands. Vicki and Brad were still arguing about their car and the sound of the glass cracking made their heads turn toward me. I opened my hand, stared at the shards of glass sticking out of my palm and the brown liquid that pooled around the glass. Vicki made a small moan as if she had been cut.

Another night, in the middle of that summer, the three of us got drunk and the alcohol had the effect I had wanted it to. I took them down to Shem River. It was July. The sky black and clear, except for the silver stars that shone above us. It was one of those secret places in Forest City where you didn’t see roads, houses or farms, but wildflowers and pine and spruce trees. Land that hadn’t been touched.

On the path to the river, Brad walked with his head down, watching his feet shuffle through the overgrown grass. Vicki acted like she had never been surrounded by natural beauty. She walked with her head tipped back, her mouth hanging open. I wished I had known her when our farm was still a farm. At night, I could take her for a walk through the pastures. You could smell the fresh cut hay better when it was dark and hear the corn stalks brushing skins if the wind was blowing. We could stay out until the sun rose and watch the light glow over the fields. The green was blinding in the morning time and at the end of summer, the Monarchs danced through the fields until they found somewhere to land.

We sat on rocks at the edge of the river. Vicki watched the sky. Her face looked shiny and I couldn’t tell if it was sweat or something else pouring out of her. Brad leaned back on his elbows and watched the river.

It hadn’t rained much that summer and the water trickled past us. I closed my eyes and remembered when the river had been deep and ice cold. When we were kids, after our chores were done, June and I swam in the river. The walk back to the house was long, but time passed easily when our bodies felt cooler and we knew work wasn’t waiting for us until the next morning. I inhaled the smell of grass, of dry summer air, not wanting to be pulled away from my youth.

Vicki said, “This would be a nice place to die.”

I opened my eyes and she leaned over the edge and looked into the river.

“Don’t say shit like that,” Brad said.

She laughed. “I can say whatever I want and I’d like to die right here.”

Brad pretended to push her into the river. Vicki laughed again and moved to sit between his legs.

“I want to die here too then,” Brad said.

Her body curled against his. She turned her face to me, her right cheek pressing into Brad’s chest. She ran her fingers over my knuckles and I didn’t look away from her.

“Me too,” I said.

Some nights Vicki went to bed early. Especially that fall. After dinner, she’d lean her hands on the table, groan, and lift herself up with the only energy she had left. She’d slowly walk out of the kitchen, up the stairs. Brad and I stayed up telling stories until one of us nodded off at the table. I told him about the last time I had cleaned the silos for my father. That week, he sold the last of our Holsteins to the Bakers’ farm. In the silo, rats the size of my head ran out from under the wet hay and over my feet, their tails slapping my ankles. When my father came out to help shovel the hay, with the pitchfork I held, I started stabbing the rats. He stood in the doorway of the silo and some of the rats died at his feet. The story made Brad laugh so loud I thought he’d wake Vicki upstairs.

He often talked about the dynamite blasts they did in the quarry. He was in charge of drilling holes, sliding dynamite sticks into them. But he worried he’d forget that the dynamite had to be stuck in a certain way and he’d blow himself or someone else up. His fingers would tap the arms of his chair and he’d look up at the circle light fixture that hung above the table, blinking and remembering. I couldn’t imagine those hands hurting Vicki, but I knew they did. The brown and green fingerprint bruises I often noticed across her wrist, her neck, were faint, but they existed even if no one said a word about them.

On a Tuesday in November, I came home from a doctor’s appointment. I wanted to stop taking the Prozac. In the last six months, I had felt better, but Doctor Rork said I should keep taking them. Before I left, he told me to keep a journal. Log the days I felt good, the days I didn’t. Then we could reconsider. I hadn’t decided if I would listen to him or not.

It had been raining for three days. I walked through the kitchen door and Vicki stood there alone, pellets of water sliding off her jacket. Her bangs were matted to her forehead and she held something, a small animal it looked like, in her hands. Her right eye socket was purple and blue.

I placed my fingers under Vicki’s chin, lifted her face to mine. The ceiling lights hit her bruised eye.

“Stop!” She shut her eyes and brought her head back down.

A cat, not small enough to be a kitten, but small enough to fit in Vicki’s arms and hide, lifted its head. Its hair was black and wet.

“I’m trying to keep him warm, Joe. I can’t have you touching me. Distracting me.”

“What happened to your eye?”

“Do we have any milk?”

I walked to the refrigerator and took out a gallon of whole milk. She put the cat on the countertop, opened the milk, and poured some into her palm. The cat pushed its pink nose into the white, began licking. Vicki bit her bottom lip, then smiled with her front teeth still sunk down into the red skin.

I began to ask what happened to her eye again, but she cut me off. “Brad’s running an errand. He wants us to start dinner without him.”

The cat continued to drink from her hand and Vicki watched it, the corners of her mouth twitching again. I didn’t want to break that bit of happiness I knew came seldom for her, so I turned my attention to the animal’s tiny pink tongue. It was so small, moving so fast. I moved closer and touched the cat’s ears with the tips of my fingers and smiled too.

That night, Vicki insisted on helping me make dinner. Brad came home before we finished and waited at the table while we cooked chicken, corn, and potatoes.

Vicki concentrated as she cut the potatoes into thin slices. In a bowl, she mixed them with oil and salt without lifting her head. She fried them in a pan, moved them to a plate when they were done, and set them in the middle of the table next to the butter.

“I never knew how domesticated you were,” Brad said.

She sat beside me at the table and stared at him. Her gaze looked out of line with his.

The cat was at Vicki’s feet and she picked it up, set it in her lap. “I want to have a baby.”

Brad squinted. “The fuck?”

“I’m twenty-five and I don’t want to be one of those old moms. I want to be able to play with them, hang out, travel around.”

“You know you’ll get big and fat,” he told her. “And you can’t be doing any of the stuff you’re doing now.” He laughed. “Shit, you won’t even be able take care of that dumb cat. I’ll probably find it dead tomorrow. In the river or run over in the middle of the road.” He tapped the end of his fork on the table, laughing louder. “That’s what kind of mother you’ll be.”

Vicki exhaled so hard her breath moved her bangs. “Then I guess you won’t be the father.”

I imagined a baby in the house, then a small boy who looked like Brad or maybe looked like me. Blue eyes. Thick, curly hair that straightened when he got older. I imagined June coming over to play with the baby, offering motherly advice to Vicki. 

“I think you’d make a great mother,” I told her, but no one was listening to me.

Vicki picked up a fried potato and threw it at Brad. It bounced off his forehead and landed on his plate. He stiffened. He touched the spot the potato had hit and his shoulders began to move up and down. Vicki and I watched, silent, as tears ran down his face. A few minutes passed and she set the cat at my feet and moved to the chair beside him. She watched him cry from that angle. Her hand went to his leg and he flinched, his knee coming up and hitting the table so hard our plates jumped and clattered against the utensils.

On Sunday, home alone, I went to Adam’s Mini Mart in the late afternoon. When I got back and started unpacking the groceries I heard something from upstairs crash against a wall, then hit the floor. I was used to the sounds that played those past spring, summer and fall nights—Vicki and Brad fucking or fighting in the room next to mine.

I ran up the stairs. The guest bedroom door was open and Vicki sat slouched in a corner. Her hands covered her face. Brad sat on the edge of the bed, his head down, but when I came through the door, his head snapped up and we looked at each other as if it was the first time. I remembered that night at Cleary’s. Brad had looked so tired he seemed broken. Now he was clean shaven and had been ever since he had a bathroom to shave in daily. The hairless face only made his cheekbones more prominent. He didn’t look that much stronger than when I had met him, but I could tell he felt it.

He stood from the edge of the bed, swaying slightly, looked at Vicki in the corner and started to hum. He walked out of the room, then out of the house.

I crouched beside her and smelled the blood before my fingers touched her chin. She lifted her head and two red rivers ran from her nostrils. Her bloodshot eyes matched the color of the tiny rivers.

“Should we take you to the hospital?” I asked, nervous about the blood, about what I hadn’t seen, about being alone with her again.

She lifted her head higher. “Who’s we? Can’t you see he’s gone.”

“Your nose is probably broken.”

Vicki shook her head. “I’ve had a broken nose before. It’s not the sort of thing you go to the hospital for either.”

She held onto my shoulders for balance, stood, then limped around me.

“Where are you going?”

“I need a drink.”

I listened to her move down the stairs and a minute later the front door slammed shut.

I sat on the edge of the bed where Brad had sat and thought of the things I had no control over. How my days used to be filled with family and hard work. June and I were so distant and separate now she felt like an ex-lover I kept running into and had to make small talk with. The way the farm had transformed from miles of green and beauty, to dried, unkempt fields and gas wells. The money that poured into my bank account every month, that I didn’t know what to do with, that I didn’t want until Vicki and Brad showed up. I thought of smaller, insignificant things like Vicki walking on the tips of her toes outside my bedroom after a shower, pretending she couldn’t see me watching, a blue towel wrapped around her body, her skin wet, her skin dark from being in the sun every day. Vicki stopping before she was out of the doorframe and looking down at the cat, its black tail curling around her leg as she bent, ran her middle finger down its spine. When she bent over like that, I wanted to trace my fingers over her vertebra just to make sure it was strong enough, that it wouldn’t snap in half. Her frailty was what I liked most. But she was gone, Brad too, and I didn’t want to think about who I’d be if they didn’t return.

Two hours later, I parked the car by the Shem River Bridge. Vicki stood there looking into the water. Her arms rested on top of the railing, and she held a bottle of Captain Morgan that I knew she’d found in the cabinet above the refrigerator.

I walked toward her and even when I stood beside her, she wouldn’t look at me. We didn’t have on coats, and we stood there shivering.

“I really wish you didn’t follow me.”

“I didn’t. I figured you came here.”

She snorted. She had wiped the blood from her nose and I saw it then, dried, on the cuffs of her white sweater. “Well I really want to be alone right now.”

I had said the same thing to June, to my parents, to Doctor Rork. During my first visit, I told him it didn’t make sense to me, but I couldn’t stand being around anyone. I hated the change that had washed over my life. I wished to sleep for days. He nodded, looking me in the eyes. A minute later he wrote me the prescription that I had refilled for nearly two years. Those first three nights I sat in my living room with the lights off, the television bright and loud, rolling the bottle against my palms, twisting the cap off every now and again, and thought that maybe Doctor Rork was wrong because being alone is not what I really wanted. It was only something I said aloud.

 So I didn’t leave. I moved closer to Vicki and rested my arms on the rail, our elbows touching. I looked out, across the river, at the dark green of the pine trees.

“He used to be kind. I wish you knew him then.” She looked up at the sky, but her eyes weren’t open fully. She dropped the bottle of Captain Morgan into the water and talked over the small sound it made.

“He’s been taking your money,” she said. “There was a wad of twenties left on the counter the other day. You even notice it missing?”

I didn’t tell her anything I had noticed in the last year.

“And he hasn’t paid the electric bill in the past six months.”

I nodded. “I’ve put it back in my name.”

“Don’t do that,” she said. “Everyone’s always letting him get away with everything.”

On the drive home, we didn’t say a word to each other until I turned into the driveway.

 “I haven’t seen Boe in days,” Vicki said.

“Who’s Boe?” Before she answered, I realized that she had finally named the cat. “Where do you think he went?”

She shrugged. “He told me he wasn’t coming back.”

The lanes had changed that quickly and she was no longer talking about the cat. “What happened?”

“What always happens. We weren’t getting along.”

I parked the car in the garage and she didn’t move to take off her seatbelt. She looked out the windshield. “You ever have a girlfriend, Joe?”

I looked at the side of her face. “A few.”

Vicki nodded, smiled as if she knew the truth.

Inside, I locked all of the doors. She spent fifteen minutes in the bathroom, her nose puffy and runny when she came out. She walked into the living room and lay down on the leather couch. The way her body fell made her seem full of something heavy. I wanted to tell her to put ice on her nose, but she slid into the crevice of the couch and said, “Can you lie with me?”

I was a foot taller than her, but when I lay beside her facing the other way, her arms came around me and she felt taller and sturdier than I had ever been. We fell asleep like that until I heard a pounding on the kitchen door. I bolted up and looked at Vicki. She groaned and turned over. The pounding grew louder and Brad shouted my name again and again.

I walked into the kitchen and peered through the sliding door. Brad stood on the deck. The night had sucked him into a time machine that spit him back out looking more worn and tired than ever before. He rubbed his face and held a jack knife in his right hand. The kind my father used to carry when he hunted. The blade faced the outside of his thigh and he blinked wildly.

“Let me in, Joe.”

I opened the door a crack, nodded toward the blade. “What’s with the knife?”

“Oh,” he said, shutting his eyes. He brought the knife up, hit the side of his head with the heel of his palm. “That cat. I came up the stairs and it was growling at me, acting real weird. I was protecting myself.”

Brad pointed behind him, and on one of the steps, I saw a bundle of black. It wasn’t moving and he seemed to notice this for the first time. He made a childish, squealing sound and walked over to the cat. He stroked the body with the tip of the blade.

I thought of the nights Brad and I had stayed up together and how he had seemed like a normal guy with normal stories. The first friend I’d had in years. I thought of earlier that week when Vicki had thrown the fried potato at his forehead and how he cried so genuinely, I felt like I was watching him from some secret faraway place. That night with the potato, I wasn’t sure if he and Vicki were drunk, high, or both, but I remembered my thoughts having a certain simplicity. They were ridiculous people. They never made any sense and they never would.

For the first time in years, I felt in control. I’d keep them around, watching, listening, participating in their scenes whenever I felt called to because I enjoyed basking in the ridiculousness, their flawed plans for their futures that made me feel like Ihad a future, one that was better, more promising and alive than theirs would ever be.

 I opened the door for Brad. He hovered over the dead cat, staring at the knife’s blade in the dark. Slowly, he stood and staggered through the door.

Under the kitchen lights, the blade was slick with blood. He bent his body over the counter. His cheek pressed against the granite top and he began to pant. I couldn’t see what his eyes looked like, or his face, only his arms that stretched out over his head and across the counter, surrendering. The panting stopped and his back was still, no longer rising and falling with his breath. Eventually, one at a time, he uncurled his fingers from the handle of the knife.

Sarah Walker is a writer from Northeastern Pennsylvania. She was a Dennis Lehane Fiction Fellow at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College. Her fiction has appeared in Cleaver, Colorado Review, American University: Folio, Fanzine, and elsewhere. She is a flash fiction editor for Lily Poetry Review and a fiction reader for Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices. Connect with Sarah on Instagram @sarah_jm_walker and on Twitter @sarahjmwalker77.