By: Keith Rosson
Brian is wearing his Frankenstein mask, standing next to Mrs. Banyard on the sagging steps of her porch. Faith can tell by the way the old woman’s hand lays half-curled around the collar of Brian’s coat—as if he might run—that he’s been fighting again. Faith cinches her scarf around her neck; the air is brittle and sleet falls gritty against her jacket, her footsteps squeaking in the snow.
“Roughhousing again,” Mrs. Baynard calls out as soon as Faith sets foot in the yard. “Starting trouble. I won’t stand for it, dear.” The flesh around her neck quivers as she talks. “I can’t.”
She is wearing her dead husband’s hunting cap, a plaid thing with the flaps pulled down around her ears. Brian stands there silently, his hands hanging at his sides, the mask a vivid green in the swelling darkness.
“He had to be separated,” Mrs. Banyard says. “And the language?” She shrugs. “Well. I don’t even know what to say.”
“I’m really sorry, Mrs. Banyard,” she says, and to Brian, “Take it off.”
He stands there at the top of the steps, Frankenstein’s half-drunk, half-mournful face staring down at her.
“Take it off,” she says, and finally he does, his hair glued to his forehead in sweaty whorls. Everyone’s breath is torn apart by the occasional bluster of wind that curls around the side of the house.
They stand there, the three of them, in the deepening gloom of Mrs. Banyard’s sleet-swathed lawn. “Did you apologize?” Faith asks, looking up at him from the foot of the steps. Her brother nods, looking away. A puffy red scratch runs from his cheek and down into the collar of his coat. He cradles the mask to his chest.
“Say it again,” she says. “Say it so I can hear it, please.”
“Sorry,” he says, and runs his hand across his nose. He looks up at the old woman and does something with his mouth that is halfway between a wince and a smile. “Really sorry, Mrs. B.” His voice trembles.
Mrs. Banyard, a missile silo of a woman, softens. “Oh, hon,” she says. Brian has always been capable of this, where Faith has not. Adults and children alike have always come to his aid, always pardoned his actions whether he was the instigator or not. “The next time I’ll need to talk to your mother, though,” Ms. Banyard finally says, and Faith’s breath catches.
When her mother is brought up now, it’s like Faith’s heart is this clumsy, questionable thing, like a drunk tumbling down a flight of stairs. She and Brian share a look, there and gone. I shouldn’t even be the one doing this, Faith thinks.
Mrs. Banyard says, “But there won’t be a next time, will there, dear?” She is smiling now, and pats Brian on the shoulder. She turns to her front door then, wordlessly, to the sound of the television and the outraged cry of another child inside, some other charge appointed to the care of Mrs. Banyard and her sister. They have done this for decades, the two sisters, taken care of the neighborhood children; Faith takes some measure of comfort in that – Brian is a handful, but surely nowhere near the worst they’ve dealt with over the years.
The two of them walk home as night falls and the sleet turns to snow, falling heavy and slow now, flakes whirling in the headlights of passing cars. Faith’s wearing a pair of her mother’s thin cotton gloves, faux-leather peeling from the palms, and her hands are freezing. She thinks of the calories being burned as she walks, as if ignited and floating like embers drifting towards the sky. Her magazines say this kind of visualization, this self-belief, is key towards substantial weight loss. Part of her is embarrassed at such an idea. Sure, she’s resolutely convinced that she’s just fat, that this is it, this is her life, but there’s another part of her that thinks it can’t hurt anything, can it? So she hustles down the sidewalk with her hands like rocks in her pockets and thinks of calories igniting, her body an engine. Brian has put his mask back on and seems impervious to the cold; he scrapes and kicks his way along the sidewalk, leaving streaks of pale gray pavement in his wake. They pass the Lutheran church, a hulking shape in the dark, and the auto body shop, its edges softened, rimmed in snow. Wind rattles the chain-link fence beside them.
“What is your deal, Brian? Seriously.”
“She’s a fag hag,” Brian says bitterly, suddenly furious again, kicking at a mound of snow. “And so is Jeff. He started it. They’re both fag hag supremes.”
Faith covers her mouth and turns, covering her laughter with a cough. This is clearly a term he’s learned from Becky. Faith forgets: just because he’s quiet, doesn’t mean he’s not listening.
“Don’t say that,” she says. “Don’t even get in the habit of saying that.”
Their mother has been gone for eighteen days now, just up and gone, and not only does Faith keep expecting her to return at any second – to find her drinking coffee at the kitchen table, or slowing down beside them in the car, the thunk of the passenger door unlocking, as she leans over to open it – but Faith has begun to look for signs, in herself and Brian and her father, as to why she left in the first place. And here’s Brian with his fag hag comment, and she thinks, Would I leave? If I was her, and I had to deal with that, would I leave? What was it that drove her over the edge? Faith knows it wasn’t a single moment, but a collection of them, some internal trigger that went off and her mother said, I’ve had it. A word from science class comes to her: catalyst. What final grievance was her mother’s catalyst? It’s like a tic, the insistency of it.
Faith says, “Because it doesn’t make any sense, that’s why. And it’s mean. I thought you liked Mrs. Banyard.”
They keep walking. Faith flexes her hands inside of her coat pockets to try to warm them.
Finally, trailing behind her, Brian calls out, “I do like her. I was just mad.”
They pass the Dousman’s house next door to their own and Faith instinctively looks up towards Alex’s window on the second floor, but it’s dark. It is a massive house that casts their own home in shadow during summer evenings; Alex Dousman’s father owns a cleaning company that handles half of the commercial accounts in town. Faith’s father has worked for him for years – both of them dour, red-faced men prone to stony silences – and she and Alex share a handful of classes. He’s cute, and not a douchebag (she’s seen him pass up numerous opportunities to be cruel, which seems to her a clearly measureable currency in people her age, boys and girls alike), but Faith worries the quiet heartache she feels towards him is mostly due to his proximity. Still, when she finds herself thinking of someone, thinking of boys, Alex is her proxy. Her mind goes to him first.
Becky is sitting in a plastic lawn chair on their darkened front porch. When Faith and Brian walk up, the motion sensor comes on with a click and bathes them all in cold light. Becky’s wearing a knit cap, but leaves her jacket unbuttoned, a tanktop underneath. She’s wearing black lipstick, a skirt and black tights with a pattern on them that is couched somewhere between geometric shapes and elven runes. Her legs shine like alabaster underneath. Brian groans when he sees her.
She grins. “Nice to see you too, Assmunch.”
“Dude, it’s snowing out,” Faith says, motioning at her outfit.
Becky rolls her eyes. “Dude, no shit.”
“Well, just so you know, you look like a hooker,” Faith says, and Becky laughs, clearly pleased.
Becky Tomlinson is exactly twelve pounds heavier than Faith, but beyond that is everything that Faith is not. Becky’s eyes are ringed in mascara and she wears low-cut shirts that reveal the pale expanse of her cleavage, unabashedly and regardless of the season. She has already had sex, with a lazy-eyed 10th grader named Duane Cosma, who afterwards gave her a stick-and-poke trampstamp of a pentagram, then unceremoniously dumped her a week later. She and Faith are united – silently – by their weight and the fact that they are, with a few rare and oscillating exceptions of the social strata, each other’s only friend. Faith only knows about the weight issue because she stayed over at Becky’s house one night last summer and saw her quickly get on and off the Tomlinson’s bathroom scale – so quickly, that it seemed as if the surface of the scale was hot. They were changing into their swimsuits and Faith saw Becky cast a furtive, searching glance at her, wanting to know if she’d been seen. It was a look that belied everything else about her, and Faith of course pretended not to notice. The next morning, with a feeling that made her feel terrible and savagely happy at the same time, Faith weighed herself. It’s like the pettiest gift ever, the twelve pounds, but one she cannot help but pull out and examine sometimes, even if it makes her feel like shit. It seems like it is the one thing that they’ve never talked about explicitly. How they’re bonded by their low social cast? Totally. How the majority of kids in their school are utter shitheads? Definitely. But their weight is a silent tether. Still, where Faith is quiet, Becky is ferocious – she’s been suspended twice for fighting; one of those times was when she punched Lila Tibbetts in the mouth and mashed her braces against her lips. Becky is on her last strike at Piedmont High School, bad news for a freshman. One more “disciplinary event” and she’ll probably get expelled from school. Faith tries never to think about that furtive look in the bathroom, wounded and searching.
Snow continues to fall and Becky lights a Parliament, crossing her legs. Brian, right on cue, says, “It’s bad to smoke, dummy.”
Becky blows smoke and looks at him, standing there in his green, stitch-riddled mask. “Thank you, Brian. I’ll take that into consideration. Meanwhile, the Wolfman called, and wanted me to tell you that you suck.”
Faith unlocks the front door and Brian runs inside. She looks out at the street. A car glides past, silent and ghostly in the snow. “If my dad sees you smoking out here, he’ll freak out.”
“He’s not going to be home for a long time, right? He’s unplugging toilets at the Y. Your dad’s janitoring it up.”
It’s true, too, that Becky can be cruel. There’s an artfulness to it, an offhandedness that Faith marvels at, even when it cuts.
She looks in the living room window. She can see, down the darkened hall, Brian’s bedroom door limned in light. He’s back to making his monster models, or reading old comic books, like some weird throwback to the 1950s, her brother. He is probably the only third grader on earth who claims to admire Boris Karloff.
Becky asks, “Did you hear anything from her?”
Faith shakes her head. “No.”
The note her mother left eighteen days ago had been left on the kitchen counter. Next to the coffeepot. Faith had found it. She thought it was a grocery list at first. I love you all, it read in her mother’s looping cursive, but I just can’t breathe here. I need time. I’ll be back soon. I’m so sorry. Not even her name afterwards. Not even an initial.
Becky shakes her head. “What a bitch. Who does that?”
Faith sighs and squints out at the night. The porch light clicks off and shrouds them in darkness. “Give me a drag of that,” she says, and Becky holds out the cigarette.
Later that evening, after Becky has gone home and hours after her father has come home from his shift and started drinking, Faith finds him weeping in front of Brian’s bedroom door, wearing only his underwear. He has spent most of the evening on the couch, his coveralls hanging around his waist like desiccated skin, his t-shirt yellowed at the pits, metronomically hoisting beers and flipping through sitcoms. And now this: a lumbering, loose-limbed man leaning drunk against the doorframe of his son’s bedroom. His back is furred, his underwear sagging. He looks like a lunatic’s idea of a baby. This used to be her mother’s job, calming him, talking him down. It is sometime past midnight, and her father wobbles unbalanced in the hallway and Faith feels a familiar flare of anger burst inside her.
“Dad?” she asks quietly. “What are you doing?”
Without turning, he says, “I just want to tell him I love him.” All the words tumble together, blurred. His hair stands out in jagged tufts. He smells like spent alcohol and the acrid tang of bleach.
Faith says, “He’s sleeping, Dad. You’ll scare him.”
Her father turns and looks at her. This one red and baleful eye, the purple socket ringed with fatigue and drunkenness. It’s a look moored somewhere between contempt and wretched pity. “Look at you,” he sneers. “Jesus, Faith. You’re fucking huge.” His eyes droop and he braces himself up with a hand against the wall. And then, mawkishly, “You’ve got to take better care of yourself.”
Faith laughs, a quiet little gasp of punched-in hurt, and says, “He’s sleeping, Dad. Let him sleep.”
His head wobbles on his neck as he tries to focus on her. “Okay,” he finally says, nodding. He rasps a hand down the stubble on his cheek. “Okay.” He lumbers off to his room, shutting the door with exaggerated care behind him. Faith wonders, did Brian wake up? What might he have heard?
Her father had called the police, in spite of the note. “It could have been written under duress,” he said to the police officer, who came to their door and looked, with the crisp creases in his shirtsleeves and the red geography of shaving bumps on his throat, like he’d graduated high school a few hours before.
“It could have,” the police officer said. Noncommital, examining both sides of the note, as if he expected magic ink to appear.
The three of them stood in the kitchen. Brian, oblivious, was in his room reenacting Frankenstein’s reanimation; the occasional shriek or maniacal “It’s alive!” wafted down the hall.
The officer handed the note back. “Sir, honestly, I’m really sorry. We’ll definitely keep an eye out—”
“What does that mean?”
“—but it doesn’t look like there’s been any crime committed here.”
“She could have been coerced.”
“People don’t just leave,” Faith said plaintively. “She can’t just leave, right?” Her father looked embarrassed. The police officer spared her a pitying look.
“Does she have family?” he asked. “A lot of times, sir, they can help with an estrangement.”
“Estrangement? What? I’m talking—what if she was kidnapped?”
The officer looked at Faith and then at her father. He leaned forward; Faith could hear his gun-belt creak. He said quietly, “Honestly, sir. Do you really think that’s what happened?”
This is the part that drives Faith crazy: How their mother’s absence seems to have become her greatest trait, the most memorable thing about her. It’s fucked up. There are the usual timid ghosts batting around the attic of Faith’s memory: the marbled quality of her mother’s legs when she wore shorts. Her propensity to weep at (in Faith’s opinion) nothing, or at least very little – and then to spend twice as long apologizing for it. The pink bathrobe she wore that had grown thin and pilled in the arms by the time she left . Stretches at dinner, where she and Brian were left to navigate the expansive silence by themselves; their father plowing through the meal and their mother staring at the flat wall of night outside the windows, smiling wanly at nothing. Faith’s contempt at the wattle of skin around her mother’s neck, the shelves of flesh on her upper arms, coupled with her seething awareness that she had her mother beat in the weight department by a mile. The soft-eyed, quivering look that she sometimes got when Faith was mean to her, like the tears would start tumbling at any moment.
But, these are just a collection of moments, snapshots and instances. It’s as if she had been gone, or vanishing, or disappearing in opacity and presence long before she actually did.
Which is terrible, and doesn’t do much to alleviate the idea that the three of them have somehow driven her to it, have driven her finally and irrevocably away. That there was no real catalyst, not really.
The day after the incident in the doorway, they come home to find their father drinking coffee at the kitchen table, his hair slicked back. It’s his day off, and he is hungover , still unshaven, and they know well enough to give him a wide berth; Brian, instead of throwing his backpack on the living room floor and running to the refrigerator, walks stealthily to his room. The house with their father in it has become a series of rooms rife with landmines.
He says Faith’s name and looks down at his coffee cup. He runs his knuckles along his chin; she can hear the rasp across the room. It’s one of his habits.
“So we’re running tight on money,” he says. He fixes her with a half-smile. Shrugs.
Faith waits and finally says, “I don’t have any cash, Dad. I’m broke.”
He shakes his head and looks out the window, the wash of weak light outside hardly seeming to enter the room. Everything – the curling linoleum, the tablecloth, her father’s t-shirt – seems bled of its color, washed out.
“I’m not asking you for money, Faith. We’ve got a long, shitty road ahead of us before that ever happens. I’m just saying things are tight right now, with your mother hauling ass around who knows where. We’re going to have to get a little creative. As far as meals go. Pace the bills out. Button down. That’s all I’m saying.”
She wants to say something – maybe about the cases of beer that sit stacked thigh-high in the garage – but she doesn’t. Instead she says, “Okay.”
“I’ll see if I can pick up extra shifts this week. A few guys are out sick. It’s possible.”
He looks at her and smiles. It’s a sad smile, but a kind one, and seeing it she’s sure he has no memory of what he said to her the night before.
He says, “It’s up to us. We’re going to have to save each other here, okay?” And just like that, she feels this warm rush of love towards him, and is angry at herself for it. Is this all it takes? A smile from him? She feels unbalanced, unmoored.
“We have to pay Mrs. Banyard, too.”
His father winces and takes a sip of coffee. “That’s done for now. Not enough money for it.”
“What are we supposed to do? I can’t take him to work with me. Royce’ll shit a brick.”
“He’s just going to have to come home after school. I’ll get him a key. And enough with the language.”
“He’s eight, Dad. He’ll burn the house down.”
Her father looks outside again and sighs. He stands up, takes his coffee cup in his hand. He says, “She’ll be back. She’s done it before.”
It’s true – Faith can remember it. She’d been around Brian’s age, It was a time punctuated, like now, with an eerie silence. Gone was the squalling baby – the impetus, it had seemed to her then, for her parents to fight. She remembers that silence and the harried, strange dinners her father made: canned chili, a bright orange square of cheese laid over its surface, thin slivers of watermelon next to it. Pale, tasteless Kool-Aid, bologna sandwiches, a pair of saltines still enshrouded in their plastic. It’s hard to remember specific instances, but that’s what times does, it blurs everything. They fought and fought, and then she was gone with Brian.By Christmas, they were back and things seemed better for a time.
“It’s not you,” he says, his back to her as he rinses his cup at the sink.
“What isn’t?” she asks.
“You and Brian. She didn’t leave because of you.”
“I know that,” Faith says, bitterly. “It’s her asthma. The poor lady just can’t breathe around all of us.”
Her father barks surprised laughter, and Faith finds herself laughing tooTthe noise is such that Brian comes out of his room. He peers into the kitchen, wearing his werewolf mask, his blue eyes blinking inside its hollows, his fingers hooked around the doorframe. Staring at the two of them like some silent beast testing the air for danger.
Winter gives way, grudgingly to spring. There’s an ache involved in it this time, the changes incremental and buried, like the growing of bones. Just slow enough as to be unnamable. Their nights deepen into a fuller silence; their mother does not return. They begin to grow accustomed to it. The deadened purl of snowfall begins to give way to the occasional sizzle of rain on the roof. Her father begins drinking in his room, the door opened a few inches, enough for Faith to see the unmade bed, mounds of work coveralls lying on the dirty carpet, as she passes down the hall to the bathroom. He works swing shift, and so is asleep, his snores wet and terrible, while Faith and Brian get ready for school. Faith brings Mrs. Baynard her last check; she bids the family farewell with a look on her face that says she knows no good will come. Brian is ecstatic. He receives his house key and instructions from their father with an attempt at solemnity that makes the man crack a rare smile.
For two weeks, Becky goes out with a nineteen-year-old, who works at the video game outlet in the mall. “He’s got a dick like a corkscrew,” she tells Faith with a mock shiver.,She is heartbroken when he breaks up with her two weeks later, after finding out how old she really is. The two girls steal a twelve-pack from the stack in Faith’s garage and sneak out, drinking in the tiny cemetery behind the church, freezing their asses off. Becky throws up.
Faith gives Brian a mummy mask for his birthday – an expensive one. Beneath the bandages, the exposed swaths of skin green are laden with gel-filled pustules – and he refuses to take it off at school, until her father is called away from work to speak to the principal. At home, all of his masks are taken away and Brian screams and screams and is spanked. Some paternal guilt then incites their father to have Brian come outside and play catch. Brian hurls the baseball at his father, then breaks the window to the laundry room. His father slaps him across the face and takes all of his toys away. That night, Faith hears both of them weeping in their rooms and wants to scream with frustration.
One night, their father goes to a bar. He comes home and collapses part of their fence when he clips it with the bumper of his truck, waking the entire neighborhood, she’s sure.
He begins missing some days, calling in sick in the early afternoon, finding someone to cover for him, walking the house like a hungry ghost.
And always, no matter the day, his first beer is uncapped a) promptly at dusk or b) as soon as his shift is over, whichever comes first. This is their metronome, the clock by which their family’s blood runs.
No word arrives from their mother, and still Faith vacillates between Would I? and What did we do?
She comes home, one night after her shift, to find their father not there, something that has been happening with more and more frequency. This time, when she opens the front door and sees, Brian’s darkened doorway through the livingroom, a burr of dread snags her. She wonders for a moment if he’s fallen asleep early and feels something like panic, alongside a sharp heart’s-tug of sadness that he should be subjected to this, all these hours by himself.
She sees the sliver of light in their father’s room – it’s become his room by now, his alone – and finds Brian sitting on the bed, his hands clasped primly in front of him. He’s left the overhead light off, and instead turned on their father’s reading lamp; it casts an interrogative air around the room, bathing the side of his face in harsh light. The room smells closed in, stale socks and disinfectant and the contents of half-full beer bottles long turned sour.
“Hi,” Brian says, his lips already trembling.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Nothing,” he says.
His chin notches into his breastbone and he says through pursed lips, “Looking for my masks.”
Faith feels another tug. She can see the blue archeology of veins in the skin of his arms. It’s fucking heartless, that he comes home to an empty house when she’s not here. This quiet, withdrawn, undeniably weird kid who quotes from Lon Chaney films. This lonely boy, her brother, a kid who, on those rare times Faith offers to play with him, immediately perks up and says, “Okay. I’ll be Nosferatu.”
“Get up,” she says. “We’ll make some dinner.”
He looks up at her with his head still tucked down. “You first,” he says, almost a whisper.
“What? Get up, Brian.”
His lips quivers, indicative of a meltdown. He shakes his head, a tear already tumbling from one blue eye.
She grabs him by the shoulder and pulls him up and there sits their father’s pistol, a squat black revolver like something out of an old detective show.
“Oh my God,” Faith says, drawing it out long and slow, and that’s when the dam breaks and Brian begins blubbering. Half-formed words and his hands shoved into his armpits as he slumps against the wall, the scene made all the more garish by the adjustable lamp centered on them, like an interrogation, before Brian starts getting slapped around by the bad cop.
“I just was looking for my mummy mask,” he says, stressing each word between sobs. Faith doesn’t know if it’s the fact that he drops to the carpet, slapping his palms against the floor in a motion both submissive and woefully theatrical, or the fact that mummy sounds like mommy. She realizes that both have in essence been taken away from him, but she says quietly, “Get up. Go get the mac and cheese out. And the milk.”
Brian peers up at her like one led to the gallows only to find that no one has brought a rope. “Are you going to tell?” he asks, his voice still hitching like a motor trying to start.
She points at the pistol. “Are you ever going to touch this again without permission? Ever?”
“No,” Brian says fiercely. He sits up on his knees. “Never. I swear.”
“Dad would ground you forever if he knew. He would seriously flip the fuck out, dude.”
He nods reverently, gratitude washing over his face.
Hours later, they are in their rooms when their father comes home. She has become accustomed to measuring the length of time it takes him to go through his rounds – jacket on chair, keys on coffee table, refrigerator for beer – in relation to his drunkenness. Tonight is one of those rare nights where he is so drunk, or defeated, that he simply goes to bed, his feet dull and thunderous in the hallway.
She works three afternoons a week at the Burger Palace – even the name stirs in her a kind of eye-rolling contempt that would sometimes make her mother laugh. The manager, Royce, drives them all insane with a staunch commitment to Burger Palace’s credo of service, a commitment that suggests previous employment in some elite faction of the military. Royce is twenty-one, maybe twenty-two, and wears a pontyail and pencil-thin mustache. He is infamous for being cloyingly nice to the pretty girls on staff and a tyrannical shit to the rest of them. He will, everyone is convinced, die a manager of the Burger Palace, lowered into his grave with a spatula in hand.
On the first day of nice weather, with wide blue skies and clouds scattered like something flung from a painter’s brush, the whole town seems to bare its pale arms and legs and step outside. They’ve finally reached their first lull in the day – the place has been slammed all afternoon – when Alex Dousman steps up to the counter as Faith is working the register. She closes her eyes for just a moment, but he is unfortunately still there when she opens them. She is wearing a hat that is the top half of a hamburger bun and can feel the grease and general effluvia of the franchise settled on her like a second skin.
“Hey,” she says, as casually as she can manage, and then, sure that Royce is right behind her, “Welcome to Burger Palace. What can I get for you today?”
He smiles at her, lightning-quick, a look so dense with an unspoken empathy that it immediately validates every shitty hour she has spent there. That’s Alex, right there: a glance from him, that one crooked tooth stepped over the other, and all seems well. It almost pisses her off. He orders, and she takes special care not to touch his hand when she gives him his change.
“Thanks,” he says, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
“No problem,” Faith says.
Alex walks outside with his bag and sits down at a table with some other boys. Marissa, a ghostly-pale junior with a cluster of angry-looking pimples on each cheek, looks out the window and nods her approval. “He’s hot,” she says.
Faith sprays sanitizer on the plastic surface of the register and wipes it down with a towel. She can feel coins of embarrassment burning on her cheeks. “He’s not that hot,” she says.
“I don’t know,” Marissa says sagely. “I’d do him.” She touches a pimple on her chin while she looks out the window. She sounds wizened, like a woman twenty years her senior. “I’d totally give him a ride.”
“Dear mongoloids,” Royce calls out, shaking the fry basket so ferociously, it’s as if he were flipping omelets, “back to work please.”
It is the first day of June when Mrs. Banyard’s sister dies. News travels fast, and it turns out the majority of the staff at Burger Palace—Royce included—were privy as children to to the Banyard sisters’ strict regimen of PBS-only television and grain-encrusted peanut butter and preserve sandwiches. It is rumored that Mr. Banyard, thirty years in the grave now, was the spearhead of an illicit triangle. “He was banging them both,” Marissa says, “in the same house.”
“Where do you people get this shit?” Royce scoffs, shuddering. “You remember what the Banyard sisters looked like, right? I’ve met shapelier truckers at rest stops.”
“I bet you have,” Marissa mutters.
The funeral is held two days later. Her father wakes up early and Faith and Brian are allowed to take the day off school. Faith wears a dark skirt and a black sweater, her hair pinned back. Brian, in his little black suit, looks as if he spent the previous night sleeping fitfully in a drawer somewhere. His eyes keep drooping, his chin tilting towards the tie that Faith can’t figure out. “You have to keep your head up,” she says. Finally, her father, his hair combed, clean-shaven and almost handsome in his own dark suit, comes in and ties it for him.
“You look nice,” he says to Faith, and she looks at the floor.
The day is overcast and muggy. Mrs. Banyard stands at the front of the procession. She looks tiny, shrunken, but she’s flanked by a line of other old women who press silk handkerchiefs to their veiled faces and reach over at various moments to pat her on the back or rub her arm. Faith has never before thought of her having friends. Brian spends the funeral with his face pressed against Faith’s side. When the coffin is slowly winched into the ground, he starts weeping, quiet, barking little sobs. People turn and give rueful, sad smiles. Their father leans down and puts his hand on Brian’s shoulder. “Stop,” he whispers. Brian cries louder.
“Hey,” her father says. Faith can see his hand tighten on Brian’s shoulder, the knuckles tightening against the skin. He shakes him, Brian’s jaw clicks audibly.
“Dad,” she says loudly, and she can see people really turn to examine them then, this family. Everyone by now knows about their mother being gone – it’s been months now, after all. Her father softens, chastised, and Brian’s sobs eventually slow to the occasional hiccup, his face still pressed against her.
Like some augury, then: when they return home, there’s a postcard. Her father stands in front of the mailbox, squinting, his jaw opening and closing, as if he’s trying to pop his ears. When he looks up, he seems punch-drunk, dazed.
Faith takes the postcard from him. It’s a black and white picture of a field of wheat, a dilapidated barn in the foreground, crisp with ruination, paint peeling from its sides in jagged swaths. The postmark says it was mailed from Montpelier, Vermont four days before. Brian, knowing little but at the mercy of everything, sees the look on their faces and picks up a handful of gravel and flings it against the truck.
On the back of the postcard it says, I’m so sorry.
It is the last day of school and she and Becky walk on the sunswept sidewalk, Brian, wearing his mummy mask, kicksa pinecone behind them. Faith has survived her freshman year of high school and feels – like she has trod some immeasurable distance and there is some isle there on the horizon, some chance or luck finally made visible. At the very least, summer looms large ahead of her.
“I swear, my drunk to sober ratio is going to climb like a thousand percent,” Becky says.
“Totally,” Faith says, smiling.
Again, as they turn the corner onto their street, she looks up towards Alex’s window and then immediately down, towards the Dousmans’ front door, because her father is standing there. It takes a moment for this to register, but it’s him. He’s wearing his work clothes and Faith can tell by his posture that he is drunk. Over his shoulder,she sees Alex’s stricken face.
Her father is holding his pistol, pointing it towards the ground.
“Holy fuck,” Becky whispers.
“Take Brian home,” she says, and calls out to her father. As she crosses the street, it feels like someone inside her chest is running a tin cup along the ladder of her ribs. Fear is an electric, battery taste in her mouth.
She calls out to him again, and he turns. His eyes are threaded with red veins, a lock of hair tumbling down. “I was just seeing if his dad was home,” he slurs.
Alex looks from her, back to her father. Alex’s little brother, younger even than Brian, tries to look past his elbow, but Alex pushes him back.
“Dad,” Faith says. She puts her hand on his elbow. “Let’s go home.”
“We are a having a discussion,” he says. “Me and him. Do you know why?”
“No,” Faith says.
“His dad here just fired me,” her father says, his face etched in drunken indignation. “Just today. ‘Too many write-ups,’ he says. ‘Late too many times,’ he says. Sick.” He turns to Alex and cries out cheerfully, “You believe that shit?” Alex flinches.
“Dad, let’s go.”
Her father points a finger at Alex, the pistol dangling from his other hand. “When your dad gets home,” he says with exaggerated slowness, “you tell him I need to talk to him. We need to have words.”
Alex slowly closes the door.
“Man to man,” her father calls out.
Fifteen minutes later, Faith is not at all surprised to see that it’s the same young policeman who steps into their yard and drops to one knee on their walkway, his pistol out and drawn towards her father, who sits sagged over on their concrete steps, his hair hanging in his eyes. The pistol sits on the pavement between his feet. A tendril of snot dangles between his knees as he lets loose hard, wracking sobs. The policeman’s partner, a heavyset woman with a blonde ponytail and a leathery tan, advances towards her father, her own sidearm drawn. She says something into the radio on her shoulder. Her pistol wavers from Faith, to her father, and back.
“Don’t,” Faith says. “It’s okay.” She steps away from him onto the lawn, her hands outstretched towards the officers.
“Put your hands up,” the man calls out. “Sir, put your hands up, and get on the ground.”
“Get on your knees,” the woman says. “Do it.” Their guns are smart and boxy and small.
Her father gets to his knees. The woman steps behind him and takes his wrists. She lays him on the ground and leans on his neck with one knee as she handcuffs him. Her father groans. Faith can’t see his face.
“You’re hurting him,” Faith says.
They turn and look, she and the police officers, because there, in the doorway, stands Brian in his mummy mask, with its gel-filled sores and tinted red cups over the eyeholes. It’s a moment she sees with relentless and brutal clarity, a definitive moment, perhaps more so than the shadowy vanishing of their mother, because she sees it: Becky, couched in the shadow of the living room, looming behind Brian, her face so sweetly terrified for him. One sunlit hand on his shoulder, gripping the worn fabric of his shirt. Faith sees him step forward, towards the yard, the sunlight, where the policewoman leans on their father’s neck, where a chorus of tiny insects whirl above the grass, and he pulls off the mask, those half-filled capsules seeking their level as he peels the mask from his face. She sees his face blanched white, save for the red coins of his cheeks. In the fervent ice-blue of his eyes, she recognizes it: a catalyst, a moment defined by the fact that it is irrevocable; Faith and the splintered oddments of her family will never be able to turn back from what is happening right now, here on this sunlit patch of grass.
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