When old man Zabriskie got sick and privately offered his manor house, including its very own island, to the first man who would shoot him in the head, it was Frankie Harpur who stepped up to the plate. Frankie Harpur—shell-shocked war veteran one minute, Lord of the Manor the next.
It would be five years before Thettie Harpur would hear about Frankie’s change of fortune. They’d moved away by then, of course, and how she heard about cousin Frankie was through a one-eyed girl called Bryce whose inflatable took a bullet a mile upriver, and who Doc found drifting face-up in the current, her good eye open and blinking. Back at The Landing, an abandoned hamlet along the Susquehanna, where they’d been in exile for almost a decade, Doc told Thettie that there was something familiar about the girl. As far as Thettie could see, she was just some no-account water-rat, but Doc was right, as usual. It turned out the foundling knew Frankie, or said she did, and had even claimed to have been to the island—so Doc decided to keep her. By then, the Harpur boys were falling all over her, but it was Archy who won her in the end, fair and square—even if his brother, Grif chose not to see it that way.
‘We ain’t taking her back with us,’ Grif said. ‘What kind of a name for a girl is Bryce, anyway?’
‘Bryce with a ‘y,’’ said Archy.
‘I don’t give a god damn what it’s with. You don’t know where she’s been.’
‘She’s from Little Ridge, same as us.’
‘How comes we never seen her before when we was there?’ Grif bit down on his cigar and spat out the tip in the direction of where Bryce was sitting alone on the dock fixing her lines. Nothing but a dark blur against the white Pennsylvania sky.
‘She’s younger than us,’ Archy said.
Maybe it was that. Or maybe it was her narrow waist and uncomely boy-hair, not to mention the fact of the missing eye. Or maybe it was that Bryce-with-a-‘y’ did have news of Frankie and some new mix he was cooking up alone on Nose Island—a rock whose very existence had been in contention for as long as Thettie remembered. Maybe it was her uncanny knowledge of all the hidden currents and inlets that would get them there—but whatever it was, Thettie, like Grif hated the girl on sight.
‘She’s been there her own self,’ Doc claimed. He described to Thettie what the girl had told him about the deep narrow harbor that spilled out beneath a high nostril-shaped outcrop, and Frankie’s new lab supposedly in one of the old engineer huts.
So, after ten years away from Little Ridge, they were going back, and if Thettie had her doubts as to where or what ‘back’ was, she kept them to herself.
‘Let bygones be bygones,’ Doc said. ‘Forgive and forget.’
‘Harpurs don’t do either,’ Grif said, under his breath. ‘And if he was one of us, he’d know that.’
It was first light when they finally returned to the shores of Little Ridge—their return in the same formation in which they’d fled. Doc on point on the deck of his Craigslist cruising yacht (the one difference being the two parole absconders he recruited learning about the Yankee security system Frankie had rigged up), with Grif close behind on his beloved Lund, and Thettie with Archy and the water rat on the old Black Crown that had been in the family for years. The rest of the clan—aunts and cousins and boyfriends—as ever, taking up the rear. Everyone’s stomachs were so full of lakers and muskies, all they could talk about was pizza and burgers and fries and Taco Hell. And how, given half a chance, they could murder an Oreos McFlurry. Kill it twice.
The stars had begun to fade over the expanse of lake and Archy and Grif were already toe-to-toe in the shallows. Thettie leaned against the rail of the Black Crown, worn out from her boys’ non-stop yammering and bickering all the way up the river and across the state line and then some. Their ongoing feud a dream-like voice-over to the three hundred miles of rush-lined streams and riverside shanty towns, jostling tapas bars, office parks, summer-camp sites, gleaming Mormon tabernacles, families fishing off retaining walls, and fake antique water pumps.
Despite her exhaustion, Thettie’s heart was flopping like a fish. She didn’t know what to expect after being away from Little Ridge for so long, but she didn’t expect to feel like this—a stranger. She couldn’t look at what was left of their settlement at the edge of town, nor at the genteel Village roofs still shrouded in night. Instead she concentrated on trying to spot the island in the mist, wondering if in fact the girl was right and Frankie was still there. Because it wasn’t just the leaving. And it wasn’t just Frankie left behind to die. It was the never coming back.
‘Fucktard say what?’ Archy gave Grif a shove.
‘She’s not staying.’ Grif shoved back.
Frankie would say, ‘never say never.’ Grif lost his footing on the lake stones, his nose bleeding onto his soggy cigar. He asked again, ‘What kind of name for a girl is Bryce, anyways?’
‘The name of my girl, not yours, is what it is.’
‘It’s a boy’s name, fucktard.’
‘Not with a ‘y’.’
Thettie’s real son, Archy, was the quicker of the two but the giant, motherless Grif packed a harder punch. Archy, winded, lost his grip and Grif jabbed the space between them with his damp cigar. ‘Which you had to spell out for her. FYI, most folks don’t need someone else to tell them how to spell their own fucking name, fucktard.’
Frankie would say that she and her boys were a three-headed monster, like Cerberus, hound of hell. The hair on Thettie’s neck prickled. She peered into the mist for the island. Frankie?
The fog brought a cold that burned breathing in. But it was the familiar reek of rotting lake weed and bracing pine that made her know she was home. Thettie coughed and lit a cigarette to cover the smell she’d been dying to return to for almost ten years. She was a girl then. Inhale. What was she now?
Archy’s hood fell off his pretty eyes and he lunged. Grif swung, and took his brother in a bear hug, and they continued their tussle beneath the grunting stars. Mist aureoled their long Harpur hair, and water streamed down their filthy thermals. Thettie climbed up from the rocking trawler onto the jetty. Both boys had a point, but to her thinking, the truth was just a devil in lacy disguise, and Doc may or may not have had a piece of the water rat between pulling her from the creek, giving her CPR, and towing her back to the Landing—but the fact remained that none of them really knew where Bryce—strange name for a girl— had been.
Archy was going to have to get rid of her.
‘Get rid of her.’ Grif burbled and jerked his hips from beneath the slops, his ability to read Thettie’s mind acquired after following her around from the age of ten, like on an invisible leash. ‘She’s not one of…’
‘We need her,’ Archy’s rings gleamed dully in the early light. ‘Doc said she knows where Frankie is. She knows how to get to the island.’
Grif, splashing to the surface, spoke the words Thettie didn’t dare to say. ‘No one knows how to get to the island.’
Archy’s eyes glowed like planets, the pupils submerged in glittering spheres of blue.
‘Bryce says Frankie’s there, asshole. Frankie’s there now!’
‘Yeah but how…’ Grif’s question drowned in gurgles while Archy held him down in order to silence a possibility not worth thinking on. The bigger man’s arm punching through the surface of the water, tattoos on his giant knuckles running like stains.
Thettie looked across the ruffled lake, but Nose Island—part of some founding father’s estate, which according to Bryce, Doc said, belonged to Frankie now—was wrapped in time and Frankie with it. Doc’s squeaky brogue was suddenly and without warning behind her like an ambush, his rubber-soled combat boots having a lot to answer for.
‘I’ll send someone to see to renting us some cabins, girl. You go on into town to get us supplies.’
She nodded and took a step toward the shore, but Doc’s hand clamped over her wrist in a guerilla grip. With a sideways nod, he sent the two parolees at his flank to break up the tussle in the slops since joined by any number of Harpur sons, nephews, and brothers. The boats had churned the water into yellow curds, the mist alive with the eerily familiar click of invisible Bics and Zippos. The last of the light from Orion’s belt caught in the pink-tinged droplets that fanned off the swinging ropes of Archy’s pretty hair. Dawn was slow to come over the eastern ridge.
‘Not what I expected,’ Thettie said. ‘So quiet.’
‘Well, it’s a tad early for a welcoming committee and all,’ the words spat out of the good half of Doc’s mouth. He drew her toward him, the stump of his trigger finger brushing against the inside of her wrist. The unforgiving sting of the hemlocks on the back of her throat made it hurt to swallow.
‘There’ll be one soon enough,’ Thettie stiffened in his embrace.
‘Home, girl. Feel good?’
‘Feels cold,’ she said, wriggling free. ‘Barely October. I better see to breakfast. Stores will be opening soon.’
Lights had begun to wink on along the shore. Thettie dropped down off the jetty and winced at how her wet sneakers chafed at the hollow of her ankles, the sound of her footfall on the stones like a fingernail raked across a blackboard. Her knees buckled but did not give way and she felt the urge to pee but did not let go. Instead she stood up straighter, tried to pull everything back into herself, everything lost somewhere between here and the Landing and back again. Behind her she heard Archy and Grif submitting to Doc’s toughs and dropping their squabble to follow her. It was with an effort that she kept her spine rigid and her back to them, signaling by the length of her stride that this was not about them. Not this time.
Her vision was jumpy from lack of sleep and there were dark flakes like ash at the edge of her eye. She shivered in Archy’s cast-off sweater. Between the lake shore and the woods was a row of new solar-paneled log cabins behind which ran a scraggly line of budget-priced trailers for retirees and fishermen, invalids and itinerants who came back year after year or who never left. A face jumped into the window frame of a listing double-wide trailer and Thettie’s flesh rippled. A scarf or veil obscured the face as it followed Thettie’s progress, and she heard the strumming of a distorted guitar. She knew those chords! Thettie jerked away fast and just as quickly looked back—she didn’t want to—but the face was gone and the music, too.
Word of the Harpurs’ return had started to spread and a small posse of locals and lawmen began to gather in the parking lot. She felt their eyes on her. Thettie fluffed out her hair and unbuttoned the top button of her sweater. The ridge behind the Village blocked the rising sun and blurred the outlines of the waking world. Headlights floated slowly down Main Street like eyes without a face. New smells drifted in the air. The unfamiliar grind of an espresso machine from where the drug store used to be, rosemary in the fresh-baked bread from a new bakery at the end of the block.
‘I’ll be damned.’
Ten years since they’d left Little Ridge, and it had transformed from a forgotten lake town into something from the future.
Her body remembered, before her mind could argue, to avoid a wedge-shaped crack that had been in the sidewalk, but was no longer there. When she stepped over where she was sure the gap had been, fine lines began to web the new mica. She froze. At her feet, small fissures widened as she watched, like something trying to push up from below the surface, like something come up to meet her. At this spot—she was sure this was the spot—had been a deep vertical slit that Cassie and Frankie always said it looked like a giant mouth—it was just here, she was sure of it. It had cut all the way down to the soil and was tufted with weeds and crowded with chunks of asphalt like broken teeth—and it always tripped one of them up, either by accident or on purpose. Could turn a spectacular wheelie into a dramatic lose, cross-bar slammed into pubic bone, that old cement mouth with its broken teeth laughing at their pain. Thettie held her breath, like she was on thin ice instead of six inches of brand new asphalt. Don’t make any sudden moves, she told herself. Only when she no longer could feel or see the cracks in the sidewalk getting any bigger, and was washed in sweat, did she carefully step away.
Yes, her boys were right not to follow. This time it was all about her.
She passed the old post office and the newspaper rooms where they’d once printed The Dawn. Instead it was now a gift store and gallery filled with paintings of the lake.
Art in Little Ridge—for real? She walked on toward the Inn, trying to slow her drumming heart. A once shabby throwback to the Fargo days, the Village Inn had grown too expensive to run and was beyond the means of Sullivan college, who owned the property, to repair. Thettie had been inside its dim, musty interior only once before they shut it down. It stood before her now, immaculately repainted like a Disney castle. White columned balconies, green shutters on all four stories. Lilies and delphiniums grew in planters on either side of a limp flag. A doorman discretely sipped coffee from an Eco cup and Thettie’s mouth watered at the fresh-ground smell.
Granted, the smell of the lake was still as oppressive as a wet sock. She wiped a drip from her nose with her sleeve. The lake would always be there. She could see it behind the rolling lawns of the Inn, stretched out beneath the mist like a sheet of burnt tinfoil. The college bell tower pealed the dark hour. 7:30 a.m.
To either side of Main Street, grandly restored Georgians and Revolution-era manors faked sleep while watching her approach through beveled windows closed to any notion of second chances. So that it was Thettie who felt herself disgracefully aged, though she was only forty-two (give or take) whatever her pale reflection in the window of the Little Ridge Market said to the contrary.
Thettie hadn’t really expected the store to be open yet. That was just a ruse to get free of Doc, put herself right in the head before she set the clan to order. She remembered it as an IGA—an understocked, overpriced country store keeping random hours. But even as she approached the new beveled glass corner shopfront and got her hand to the door—repainted in a shade of green that looked more authentic than Little Ridge ever was—it opened. Out spilled a slender man, grocery bag in one hand and texting with the other. The phone, his groceries, and her purse hit the sidewalk at the same time. Her crushed cigarettes, coupons, tampons and make-up among trays of rose-red hamburger meat as far as she could see, glowing against the sidewalk like it had just been butchered.
‘Bait or barbecue?’ she said, letting the man apologize and hand her up her things. Cassie would say to let men think that you like them on their knees, even if this one looked a little young. Thettie wondered what anyone could possibly want with so much hamburger meat. Best to stay away—it was Frankie who taught her that. Townies aren’t like us, he said. Who knew what they wanted, or why?
‘Neither,’ the man said, getting to his feet and passing across her purse. ‘The hamburger is for Vernon.’
He had paint on fingers which brushed hers, and a smile that looked older than the rest of him. Buying hamburger meat for his kid? She scanned for a wedding ring.
‘How old’s Vernon?’
Her eyes lifted to his, indistinct behind the smeared glasses. No, not too young at all probably, and not a townie, definitely. Not the usual condescending townie smirk. Nor a farm boy either. Man was far from home. She tore her eyes away from his. Paint on his sweats, too. ‘Your roommate?’
‘I guess,’ he pushed up his glasses, tentatively stepping back over a tray of meat without dropping his gaze. ‘In the wild, of course, he’d be lucky to make it to twenty.’ The man seemed to be playing a game he knew too well and had grown weary of. A desert drawl to his vowels.
‘What is it, for Christ’s sake? A bobcat? A badger? My cousin Frankie had a raccoon called Rocky who used to try and hump the cat…’ Thettie fumbled in her purse for a smoke.
‘Vernon’s a Gila Monster.’
Thettie brought the Newport to her lips with a shaking hand, and his eyes followed her every move. ‘A heelah-what?’ Except she knew.
‘It’s a lizard,’ the man said. ‘A big one.’
This she knew also.
‘Don’t they eat mice and such?’ she said, trying to ignore the cold thrill of terror at the mention of the word, ‘lizard’. Her knees wobbled a little, steadied by those far-from-home eyes.
‘My vermin guy has gone into rehab.’
He smiled a little crookedly at her, like the game was up and he was the reluctant winner.
‘I thought they ate like twice a year.’ Inhale
‘So, this is one of those times.’
‘Hamburger meat doesn’t sound right.’ Pockets of bright blood had begun to pool at the edges of the Styrofoam trays scattered on the pavement. ‘But that’s just me.’
‘He’s not really going for it, actually.’
‘Try pizza.’ Exhale. ‘It’s a cure-all according to my cousin Frankie.’
‘The raccoon guy,’ he nodded. ‘Thanks. I’ll give it a try.’
They looked awkwardly down at the flung packs of hamburger swimming in the bright blood.
‘How big is it?’ she said.
He blinked at her.
‘Your lizard. How big?’
He flushed a little like he’d see the way she looked at him and raise it. ‘Big enough.’
She went all in. ‘Big or small. They make me sick, literally. Hives and shortness of breath. My one fear.’
‘You’re lucky,’ he said. ‘Having only one.’
Yells and crashes drifted up from the shore. It’d be all over town by lunch time. How those hick Harpurs had pulled back into town in their shitty boats, and how the boys were at each other’s throats over pussy before they’d even tied up.
‘Well, we’re back,’ she said, blowing smoke. ‘Lock up your daughters.’
‘A little late for that, isn’t it?’ The man didn’t back out of the smoke but he wasn’t smiling any more either. ‘Your homes are all gone.’
He didn’t need to tell her. From the little news that made its way down to them at the Landing before Bryce showed up, she knew that Parks and Recreation had come in soon after they left ten years ago. Pulled all their float homes and grandfathered shitholes off the banks of the creek and smacked an Eminent Domain claim on the land to prevent this very occurrence—the Harpurs coming back with their hard-ons and chain-swinging vengeance.
‘Except here we are,’ and the place looked like a theme park with its fake façades and false scents. So maybe the lizard guy was right and maybe he was wrong. ‘It’s never too late,’ she said.
She ground the cigarette into the shiny new mica and pushed past him into the store.
Things were quiet but tense back at the camp ground when Thettie returned. The sun had pulled itself up over the low eastern ridge and blinked damply down at the lake shorn of its veil and dead as an old nickel. The rental office remained closed but some of the Harpur women had fired up the barbecue for the children. The reek of weed and coffee drifted from the boats. The posse at the camping grounds had grown and the sheriff’s truck was now among the parked trucks and cars. Doc would have had words with him, words that Thettie could only guess at. Maybe the lizard man was right after all. Maybe it was too late for the Harpurs. Maybe their time had passed.
But what choice did they have? It wasn’t just because they burned bridges the way some folks burnt coffee—though there was that. It was that during those terrible years of exile down at the Landing, she would wake up in a frigid sweat, the guilt of what she’d done sitting so heavy on her chest she couldn’t breathe. The weight of knowing that to keep her boys safe, she’d left as much of herself behind as she’d taken. Maybe more.
Even before they left Little Ridge, Frankie had warned that their sell-by date was passed.
‘‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls,’’ he’d say at the pealing of the college bells. ‘‘It tolls for thee.’’ There had to be room made for old clans like theirs in this new America, Frankie had said, unless your idea of a new America was an underground bunker somewhere in Georgia. ‘Folks of Little Ridge need us. We’re all that stand between them and nothing.’ Thettie wasn’t paying Frankie’s hand-wringing much mind by that time, though. She had her own problems to deal with, namely survival. But what she never bargained on was that a price of that survival was having to leave her own blood behind. And had she really survived—entire?
Bells pealed the hour but they didn’t sound the same. Would Frankie know her now? Would he say her name?
Archy was sitting on the deck of the trawler with his head in his hands. Heavy ink glistened on one arm—a floppy eared rabbit, a needle toothed Buddha, a twinned tree. His fingers bristled with silver rings. She touched a band on his thumb, a gift from Grif, battered from all the times Archy had cut it off and soldered it back together again.
‘Me and Bryce might break up,’ he said.
‘Maybe for the best,’ said Thettie. ‘What happens down river stays on the river. When I was a girl, we’d all load up into Frankie’s Zodiac and head downstream to Buckport and hang out at this pizza place there near a chop-shop. There was this one mechanic, jeans so tight—’
‘Shut up, ma.’ Archy’s dark blue eyes were thunderheads. ‘If it wasn’t for Bryce, none of us would of known about Frankie. Show some respect.’
‘Hush,’ Thettie nudged him with a paper cup of coffee. The steam rose in the unseasonable October chill, and his eyes—when he lifted them—were her eyes. Blue as steel and just as indestructible. A shiner beginning to bloom.
‘Grif went too far. I swear. I was like, now’s my chance. Just drown him. Bam.’
‘He’s your brother. Once you’ve lost that, you’ve lost everything.’ Like I lost Frankie, she thought.
‘He’s not my brother. He’s my cousin.’
‘Same as Frankie is to me,’ she said. ‘Blood’s what matters.’
Archy had her serious mouth and coarse wheaten hair, except his was tobacco-colored with streaks of rust. His jeans were still soaked, and he was trying not to shiver. His huge hand unfurled and she rummaged for her smokes.
‘He’s just watching your back,’ she tried. ‘You’ll be good again tomorrow. What kind of a name is Bryce for a girl, anyways?’
‘Shut up momma, okay? Just shut up.’
She watched him light up, the cigarette cupped in both big hands. He passed back the pack, smoke curling from his lips and around his delicate moustache and fine nose.
‘What do you want me to do?’ she said.
‘What makes you think I want you to do anything?’
But he got up wearily and, careful not to spill the coffee, held the little cabin door open for her. Thettie stepped in and down, pausing to cast an eye out first to the rubberneckers on the shore and then to her own clan. Electron-eyed nieces and cousins in their cut-offs. Bored and mutinous on the jetty where they hung about in twos or threes. Aunties in lawn chairs on the rocking decks, dreaming their OxyContin dreams. Grif’s voice wafted across, organizing a party to reel in some lakers for lunch, which was a good thing, she thought stepping down into darkness, because the Village Market had been clean out of hamburger.
JS Breukelaar is the author of the novels, American Monster (Lazy Fascist Press) and Aletheia (March 2017, Crystal Lake Press), and the collection, War Wounds (forthcoming, Omnium Gatherum). Her work has appeared or been anthologized in numerous publications including Lamplight, Lightspeed, Juked, Prick of the Spindle, Opium, New Dead Families, Go (b)et Magazined, Women Writing the Weird, Vols I and II, and States of Terror Vol. II. She is a columnist and instructor at LitReactor, and occasional contributor to The Nervous Breakdown and Vol. 1, Brooklyn. An ex-pat New Yorker, she lives in Sydney with her family and online at www.thelivingsuitcase.com.