By Erin Pringle
The girl knocks on the wooden door frame. Dogs start barking, the shapes of them knocking against the curtains in the front window. The curtains are held together with safety pins to keep the cold out. Thick plastic covers the windows, taped with duct tape along the frames. Like every winter.
She waits on the porch. She can hear the boy coming through the house just like Riley used to. Though he usually sent Jack down to greet her.
Not much has changed. The sound of the TV walking through the wall of the house. Or probably the window. Thin windows. It’s an old house. Riley taught her how to tell the difference between original windows and new ones. See the way the glass sort of wavers in the sunlight when you look up at the right angle? New windows don’t do that. The difference between hand-blown and factory-made bottles. Pointing at the mold line. See there? Look at the lip. See the difference? He wanted to have an antique store one day. He’d even picked out where it would be, in the small red brick building downtown by the train tracks, where Bell’s Jewelry used to be. The white letters still in the brick. He’d tried selling some of the bottles and vases he found out in the woods at the Saturday auction. But the auction’s better for picking, he learned. People ’round here can’t tell the difference between an eye and a glass eye. She’d laughed. They both had. Because that was before the explosion.
Of course not much has changed. The porch swing’s still broken, just sitting there. The door’s blue instead of red. Because in the larger daily reality where much of the world takes place, or at least where she used to take place, not so much time has passed. Some of her burns are still fresh pink. The deepest ones. The doctor said some-times the ache never fully goes away. Because it’s not just skin that burned off. It’s nerves when you’re talking that deep down.
The dogs are bouncing faster against the curtains. The lock slides. Did they used to lock their door?
The front door opens, slowly. A tiny dog’s face appears at the bottom, yapping. She tries to remember which name goes with this one.
Jack is standing in the crack of the door. Riley’s little brother.
Hey, he says to her, and then hooks the dog by the neck with his ankle, like a vaudeville cane, pulling the dog backward as he steps out onto the porch. He shuts the door behind him. His socks are white with gray toes. Riley wore black socks with gray toes. Oh my god, she thinks. Is this what you’re going to do the whole time?
So they let you? Jack says.
And it’s okay for you to be out like this?
She shrugs. Mom probably doesn’t think so. But this is important, right?
He nods. I meant the doctors.
They’re not the boss of me, she says, winking. But of course she can’t wink that eye anymore. She taps the palms of her mittens against her legs. Yeah, it’s fine, she says. Hey, your door’s blue. Looks nice.
Yeah. Mom read something about red doors.
Some spiritual thing? she says.
My mom stopped going to church, too.
Oh, it’s not like that, Jack says.
What’s it like?
She read on the Internet somewhere about red doors being code for meth houses.
The girl goes still. Don’t react, she thinks.
So she went down to the hardware lickety-split, Jack says, talking faster, and next thing you know we’ve got a blue door. She didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable.
That doesn’t sound like her, she says.
Jack grins. Well, I made that part up. She painted it before they found him.
You think it’s Riley.
Before they found whoever it is. It’s not the first time they found someone that might be him.
I didn’t know.
Yeah. More and more bodies. Kind of like the meth billboards that started showing up. Like every time there’s another body found on the side of an interstate, in another field, beneath snow, another billboard goes up. Or billboard, then body. Hard to know how long the people have been missing based on when the newspapers find them.
Chicken or the egg, she says, lightly. She hates the billboards. There’s one on the interstate on the way to the hospital and she holds her breath when they drive past it, like it’s a cemetery.
Some lady from a nonprofit had somehow gotten her cell number. Probably from the local news station after they ran the story when it first happened, when they didn’t know any of the details outside of the square footage of the skeleton of the house on fire, and so they got all the details wrong. Like that she’d done a rape kit. That Riley was at large. It wasn’t like that at all. And Riley may be out there somewhere, watching the segment, thinking she was accusing him of rape. But of course he isn’t out there. She knows he isn’t. He was running ahead of her. He was the closest, when all of a sudden.
The lady from the nonprofit asked if she’d be interested in doing a commercial.
I’m not an addict, she said.
Of course not, the lady said.
I mean it, she said.
Think it over, the lady said. Think about the lives you could save.
She hung up. I already think about that, she thought. That’s what she should have said to the lady.
Anyway, Jack says. It didn’t seem right to tell you about the others that didn’t end up being him anyway. Your mom said you needed to focus on recovering.
I’d never heard that, she says. About blue doors.
Red doors, he says. Probably more in the cities than around here. If it’s even true.
You think it’s him? she says.
Didn’t see it was snowing, he says, looking past her.
I can see it, she says.
I didn’t mean…
Oh, she says, I thought…She gestures at her eye.
He shakes his head, looking away.
It’s okay to look, she says. It doesn’t bother me.
He looks at her.
She looks back.
Her thickly knitted hat, the pom-pom, the new skin grafted over her cheek, a square from the inside of her thigh. Her left eye melted shut, eyelashes growing at different angles, like black stitches coming unthreaded.
How long did you want me to look? he says.
Smart ass, she says.
It’s good to see you, he says.
Who is the you that you see? she thinks. But she can’t deliver it in a way that would make him laugh, so she just follows him inside.
She steps into the entryway.
Riley and Jack’s father is sitting in the same old orange recliner, back to the door.
That you, Vix? he says, trying to look back over the headrest.
None other, she says. She tries to stand on the small doormat, to keep her snow boots from dripping onto the floor. Riley’s snow boots are just inside the door. Gray with red piping.
I’ve been wearing them, Jack says.
Sure, she says.
Their father adjusts the crocheted doilies on the arms of the chairs. He rocks in the reflection on the TV. She walks closer. He pushes his palms against the chair arms, starting to lift himself to standing.
Please don’t, she says. She holds out her mittens.
The same fake ferns stand in a line across the entertainment center. The same school pictures of Riley and Jack. You’re framed now, she says.
Jack follows her gaze. Yeah. Mom bought a box of them at the auction house.
Same brown carpet. Same coffee table with the glass top. Same gold sunburst clock on the wall. They have no idea how much it’s worth, Riley said. How much? Dunno. Two hundred. Maybe five. Pretty good shape.
Come stand where I can get a good look at you.
Oh, let’s not do anything we’ll regret, she says, lightly. She’s learning the jokes that come with her new face. The jokes to make everyone else feel at ease.
Now, don’t you say it.
But when she stands in front of him, in front of the footrest where his ankles are crossed, she sees how he hesitates. Sees him have thoughts. Sees him not say them.
Told you, she says.
Pretty as ever, he says. Your folks able to make it?
My folks, she says.
That’s right, he says.
Folks was one of Riley’s words. Not that words belong to anyone. But sort of. She’d never heard anyone use folks until she met Riley. But she didn’t move here until first grade, and that’s late, late enough for everyone to remember that her family’s not from around here. Which became more apparent after the explosion. Or maybe the town turns everyone into a stranger when something bad happens. Otherwise, it would be harder to talk about them like that. Or maybe violence just erases a person, and the town talks to keep the person there, present.
Jack’s hanging her coat on one of the wooden pegs on the wall by the door. He points at her scarf. She shakes her head. She feels safer wearing it. About exposing a bit of herself at a time.
Nah, my folks stayed home, she says. I rode my bike. She reflexively turns toward the picture window where the bike is parked outside by the old tree. Used to be a tire swing there, but she’d noticed the fat black tire on the ground as she was coming in.
Pretty cold for a bike ride, a woman says. Riley and Jack’s mom.
The girl turns to the sound, until she’s facing the window the woman sits in front of, on the couch.
Not too cold once you get going, the girl says. Don’t look at the curtains, she thinks. Once, their mother had caught her staring at the thick plastic over the windows. It ain’t pretty, but it’s warm, the woman had said. Right, the girl agreed, flushing. Meaning no harm, of course, but not knowing how to undo it. Because she did think the plastic was ugly. She doesn’t know if she’s allowed to think anything’s ugly now. What that means for her.
The dogs are curled like furry pill bugs on the throw pillows. One on the woman’s lap, its chin over her forearm. She’s wearing a white spring dress splashed with bright flowers, gathered in the waist, the skirt flaring over her bare knees. She’s wearing black socks and the black skid-proof shoes from work.
That’s a pretty dress, the girl says.
I thought I should wear a nice dress, the woman says. For the occasion. Your mother would wear a nice dress if you’d gone missing and now were found.
I once was lost, the girl thinks. But now I’m found, she thinks. A voice from church. Riley lost, but now he’s found. Maybe. That’s why she’s here, isn’t it? Because if he’s found, now she will know. And then she can figure out what to do with that, or not figure out but have it at least, not picture him wandering around like a vanishing hitchhiker.
Thank you for inviting me, the girl says.
Oh, Jack’s the one who thought you should come. I said you probably shouldn’t.
It’s a lovely dress, the girl says.
Heard you might not be getting out soon as now, the mother says.
Lucky I guess, she says.
Like bamboo, the mother says.
Bamboo, the girl says. Right. When you visited the hospital. I’m sorry I couldn’t speak to thank you.
Riley’s mother had appeared at the hospital room door as the girl was in her hospital bed, holding another clump of hair that had just sloughed from her scalp.
The burned hair smelled awful, but she couldn’t say that or any-thing because of the breathing tube. Or at least not in a way her mother understood. Any time she tried, her mother summoned the nurse because she thought she was in pain. As though her mother imagined a pain that came and went, or moved in waves.
She held out her hair for her mother to throw it away. But she didn’t. She felt her mother stand up.
You shouldn’t have come, her mother said.
Has Riley been here? It sounded like Riley’s mother.
Vix will be fine, her mother said.
That’s not what I asked, Riley’s mother said.
It’s what you should have asked.
I came right after work. Came as fast as I could. I still have to work, don’t I?
The girl imagined Riley’s mother in the dollar store’s uniform: scratchy yellow polo shirt and black pants. How she’d take her shoes off as soon as she came through the back door, untucking her shirt. It was too long and went nearly to her knees. Anyone else want an iced tea? she’d say, pulling the pitcher from the refrigerator, a plastic cup from the stack by the microwave. Already have one, Riley would say, and the girl wouldn’t say anything.
What is that? her mother said.
The girl tried to imagine it. A stack of magazines for reading. Maybe a bag of candles for lighting, something to align the universe.
Oh, this, Riley’s mother said. Just came in a shipment. Bamboo. According to the little tag here, it’s good luck. Guess you don’t have to water it much or nothing.
You can’t have plants in here, the girl’s mother said, her voice shrill and moving around the girl’s bed, bumping against the foot of it.
The girl groaned.
Dammit, her mother whispered. Sorry, baby, her mother whispered. Let me take care of this. Has she said anything about Riley? And then the room felt empty. No voices. Just the same distant sounds. There were fewer screams in the burn unit than the girl had imagined there might be once she was in there. Probably because of the breathing tubes.
The girl thought of Riley and Jack and herself in the dark car, the lights of the dashboard illuminating their faces as they sped up the country roads, headlights pushing against the dark, against the weeds and animals lining the ditches. Jack sat in the back, but leaned between the front seats. Riley was driving their mother’s car. A brass angel clipped to the air freshener. Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly, it said. Riley’s mother had put one in everyone’s stockings the previous Christmas.
Cornfields and bean fields flashed by. It was a wonderful feeling, going fast down roads they usually walked or bicycled, down hills, around corners, over Troll’s Bridge, out to where Riley thought the slave cabins were, but if the cabins were out there, they couldn’t really see them in the dark.
Then Jack said, Slow down, patting Riley’s shoulder. Slow down.
She looked. But it was just more of the same they’d been driving by all night.
See that? Jack said, moving to the driver’s window, his forehead against the glass.
You think it’s a porch light? Jack said.
Oh, I get it, Riley said. Well, I’m not falling for it.
I’m serious, Jack said. Look, he said. His voice sounded serious.
You see it, Vix? Jack said.
Riley pulled over. The brake lights glowed red in the rear wind-shield and the side mirrors. She could see the exhaust smoking red on her side of the car.
Of course, the car was there when the ambulances arrived. So if Riley ran away, why didn’t he take the car?
Turn off the headlights, Jack said.
Riley hesitated. It’s dangerous.
Just for a second, Jack said. Not forever. Just for a second.
He cut the lights, and it felt like closing her eyes it went so dark.
She peered into the darkness. They’d see someone coming around the curve, but that car would see them too late.
Turn them back on, she said.
I think I see it, Riley said.
A porch light? she said. She tried to see in the direction his face was turned, finding his cheek in the moonlight. Her eyes were adjusting, but she could still hardly see the difference between where night met the dark fields and windbreaks. If there was a porch light out there, surely she should see it.
This isn’t funny, she said.
No joke, Jack said.
Hell if that was there last time we came around, Riley said.
I don’t remember it, do you?
Their voices were getting excited.
Plenty of houses have porch lights, she said.
But don’t you see?
Not a porch light, I don’t.
Pull forward, Riley. Maybe she’s just at the wrong angle.
Shouldn’t be any light out there, Riley said.
What do you know about it?
There’s a dump site back there. He pointed, hitting his finger against the window. I go looking back there. Found a couple good bottles. Not like the usual medicine bottles, dime a thousand, those. But nobody lives back there.
Maybe somebody’s holing up.
No sheds out there. Nothing to live in. If that’s a light, it’s a porch light.
You think Kyle Orff really saw it like he said? Out when he was checking traps?
He’s a liar otherwise.
But did you see his eyes when he was telling it? Seemed to believe it.
Turn the headlights back on, Riley. Please.
Probably just somebody out there dumping stuff, maybe. Flashlight or something.
Maybe. Strange time of night to be doing that.
I heard it’s not even a whole house. Just like a staircase and a roof hovering there.
No, it’s a whole house.
How do you know?
Why would it only be a partial house? What’s scary about that?
Mamie Harris’s mother told us that Mamie’s sister seen the wandering house when they were kids before they lost the farm, so they were living out in the country at that point, I guess. And they seen a house where there shouldn’t have been one, or at least there hadn’t been one for their whole lives until that night. Her sister snuck out the window and started walking toward it, but Mamie was scared, so she stayed put. When her sister got back, she was white as snow, I guess. Wanted to know if Mamie had seen them. Mamie didn’t know what she was talking about. I guess all these ghosts started walking beside her sister the closer she got to the porch light, and out ahead of her, but they didn’t see her at all. At least she didn’t think so because she felt some of them walking through her, like they were taking some-thing from her. Feel my heart, she told Mamie. And Mamie put her hand on her chest and could feel it beating. Faster than she’d ever felt a heart beat. Then her sister had two miscarriages when she grew up.
What’s that got to do with the house?
The ghosts took those babies.
There wouldn’t have been any babies to take when she was what, thirteen or fourteen?
Jack shrugged. Maybe she was pregnant, Riley said. Sort of strange family, you know.
Who are they? Mamie Harris? You know Autrey Harris, like a couple grades younger. Big glasses, same pair of jeans every day.
No, you’re thinking of Harold. That’s a Cooper, but Coopers are cousins to Harrises. Not much better, either.
Granddad saw the wandering house, didn’t he?
Said he did.
You never told me that, she said.
Plenty of stories you don’t know, he said, smiling.
Saw it right out in the field across from his house. And it wasn’t a hotel or a house but a church, because it had one of those…
Steeples, right, and his father was standing by the door like an usher or sumpin’, and see he’d never met his dad because his dad kilt himself. But there was his dad standing there, in a real nice suit, all brushed and he smelt of aftershave like the kind in the bottle his mother kept after he’d died, to remember him by, and he stood there looking at his dad trying to figure out if his dad had kilt himself yet. If time had changed somehow. Because his dad looked so young and good looking. And so happy. Like he didn’t know he’d kilt himself or that he was going to do it. And then his dad reached for the door, and gestured like it was time to go in, and just as he was about to follow his father inside, the church sunk into ground and all that was left was him holding the door by its knob.
I don’t know about all that.
No, but I think he saw his dead father.
Could have dreamed it.
I’m gonna go take a look, Jack said.
Hell if you are, Riley said.
You think I’m too much of a baby to do it.
I think you’re a dumbshit if you do do it. Riley laughed.
Ah, let him go, she said. He won’t go far. We’ll be able to see him if we turn the lights on.
Oh, baby will get scared and come running back in no time.
You just watch, Jack said. I’ll go all the way up to the porch. I’ll ring the goddamned doorbell.
Listen to him. Baby saying grown-up words.
Sure, I will. Let me out. Jack was reaching from the back seat, his hand appearing in the front, hitting along the armrest as he searched for the door handle.
Riley punched him in the arm.
Jesus! Jack said, pulling his arm back.
You don’t talk like a baby. He might do it after all.
Don’t be so hard on him, she said.
Then Jack’s arm thrashed out like a snake, wrapping around Riley’s neck, pulling him against the seat as Jack reached with the other arm to open the door.
Riley was grabbing at his arm, grunting for breath but laughing, too, and slapping his other hand over the seat at Jack’s head, hitting his forehead and ears, pulling at his hair, and then the door was open and Jack was tumbling onto road and Riley was falling forward against the steering wheel, gasping for air.
Jack picked himself up. She imagined headlights roaring up, knocking him dead just as they saw him. Just like that. But, of course, no headlights came. It was a sheet of black, and they were hidden somewhere inside it.
Jack flipped them off and crossed the road into the ditch.
Let him go, Riley. Give him some air.
He’ll come back, Riley said.
Sure, he will. She unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned over the stick shift, against Riley’s chest. She could feel him inhale. He liked the way her hair smelled. It’s just my shampoo, she’d say when they were together, alone. But still, she liked how he reacted. Every time. His hand fell down her back as she leaned over him. His thumb falling down the shallow stairs of her spine.
She felt her breast against Riley’s shoulder.
His breath in her ear. He reached under her, shifting into first, letting the car pull forward, the back of his hand sliding against the inside of her thigh.
That was pretty suave how you did that, she said.
So that we could be alone, she said.
You don’t see it?
She laughed, low, feeling good, feeling glad she snuck out of the house to go driving.
Then she saw it. The light.
The wandering house, Riley said.
His bedroom is the same, the mother says.
I’m just getting up to use the bathroom, the girl says.
I just wanted to make that clear, the mother says. That it’s the same as it always was.
The girl nods. She shouldn’t have come. Jack’s still by the front door, so she can’t make a break for it. Not with any grace, anyway. Maybe after she uses the bathroom. She can invent a stomachache. Cramps. But then Riley’s mother would call her bluff and offer her a heating pad. Something about the woman needs to punish her. Because Riley hasn’t come back.
And so maybe it has to be okay, the girl thinks. Maybe she can do that for the mother.
Is it still down the hall? she says, because maybe the woman thinks she’s not going to the bathroom; maybe she thinks she’s going to sneak up to Riley’s room. Which she’d like to do.
Bathrooms don’t wander, the mother says.
She’s Riley’s girl, she hears Jack say. You’re not supposed to be like that. She’s Riley’s girl.
She hurries up the hallway to keep from hearing the woman’s response.
Macramé planters hang from hooks in the ceiling. More fake plants. Past the stairs that lead up to Riley’s room.
Riley never liked her hanging out here. It’s a shit house, he’d say. I like it, she’d say. You don’t have to love the house, only me, he’d say. Done, she’d say.
There’s a sense of windows about the house, but no light through them. In the kitchen is the sour smell of stale ketchup, counters stacked with cups and plates with food smeared on them, overfull ashtrays on the small kitchen table that’s covered in newspapers, papers, cans of ballpoint pens, brown paper fast food bags.
Just in here, Jack says, right behind her. His breath against her neck.
Thanks, she says, opening the bathroom door. Her counselor says there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Except Riley’s gone.
Her counselor asked if that made the girl feel shame.
She said that word was as fine as any.
The counselor said, Have you ever heard of survivor’s guilt?
The girl said, You didn’t say there’d be a quiz.
The counselor waited.
My dad has it from the war. Mom’s accusing him of it anyway. Usually when he has nightmares that wake her up but don’t wake him up. She thinks that’s what he dreams about.
The girl shrugged. She woke to his nightmares, too, to the moans coming out of his chest, like his heart finally learned how to speak but had no words.
I’m sorry, Jack says.
Where’s the light? she says.
I thought you’d want to be here.
I would. I do. It’s fine.
Do you still hurt?
Here and there, she says. Here and there.
He reaches past her, around the wall to turn on the light. Like Riley would have done. In a few more years, he’ll be Riley’s age. And maybe when his voice changes, she’ll hear Riley’s in it. Or at least how she’ll remember Riley’s voice. She never thought to record it. And Riley’s cell phone was the per-minute refill card kind, so he never bothered recording a message or checking messages because they wasted minutes. Which is also why, if he’s alive, he can’t be tracked. Which, her best friend said, is plain shitty if you ask me. Because you lost your face for him. And he walks off.
I didn’t lose my face.
Her friend said, Part of it.
He lost plenty, the girl said. His family. His home. Us. And he couldn’t have walked off. He was closer to the house than I was. The closest.
A go-nowhere life working at that factory just like his dad, or worse, sweeping floors at the dollar store like his mom.
He had plans, the girl said. We had plans.
You would have broken up like everybody does.
That’s a helluva thing to say.
I’m the only one who tells it to you straight, and that’s why you love me. Remember. That’s why.
The fact is the girl doesn’t really like her, but it’s true everyone treats her differently. Like she’ll turn to ash if they say the wrong thing. As though words caused the fire and not a man who saw them from where he stood in the house. Because it wasn’t the wandering house. A wandering house, yes, but not the wandering one.
The bathroom is small, barely the width of the bathtub that sits behind a plastic shower curtain stamped with gold seahorses. Her mother has the same shower curtain, in blue, and with matching sea-shell-shaped soaps in the ceramic dish by the sink. For several years, the shells stayed wrapped in plastic—in case of company, her mother said.
When company finally came, it was people bringing food as condolences, trying to sneak looks past her mother to where the girl might be so they could see what they’d heard about at the diner, grocery, hair parlor, church. How half her face was missing. No, the whole layer. No, most of her forehead, both cheeks. One cheek and her chin. Chin was fine. But no nose. No eye. Terrible thing to happen, especially to a girl. And one so pretty, at that. No fair queen, but pretty, sure.
Next to the toilet is a green glass wine bottle, corked. Like the one Riley packed for that picnic. She touches the tip of the cork, then picks up the bottle and rests it on her knees. He brought just enough for two glasses. Two small glasses.
Well, good, she said, because as you know, my uncle’s an alcoholic.
God rest him, Riley said.
I know, right? Why does my mom say that when he’s not even dead? That’s what you say about dead people, right?
They laughed, cross-legged on the picnic blanket they’d spread on the concrete platform by the park pond where people sometimes stood to fish. She’d caught her first fish there. A bass. Her father had thrown it back.
The girl finishes peeing and searches for toilet paper. She finds a thin roll in the cabinet beneath the sink. She waits to see if she’s going to cry. Then wipes, careful not to let her knuckles glance against the patches inside her thighs where the doctors had taken the skin they grafted onto parts of her face, shoulders.
Steal from Simon to pay Paul, her father had said, after the doctor had explained how the procedures would work.
Saul, her mother had said.
Is it? he said.
Pretty sure, she said.
Saul or Paul, Doc? her father said.
The doctor looked up from his clipboard. What’s that?
Her father clapped the doctor on the back.
The TV is still going loud in the living room. Jack had said they weren’t specific about when they’d call. Just that they would. She traces the embossed plastic of the seahorse on the shower curtain.
For a second, she imagines darkness behind the curtain, the dark-ness that surrounded that house out in the country as they approached it. How much darker the dark became when the house exploded. Just like that. Up in a flash. How bright the light was against Riley’s face as he turned toward her.
The darkness she woke from, found herself in as strange voices moved over her. The lights from the fire trucks swirling against the night sky, lighting up the clouds. When she was very little, she thought everything disappeared at night. The sun, the clouds, shadows.
She pulls the curtain back. A green tub with a corroded faucet. A shower chair. Riley’s grandmother must have moved in after all. A pair of women’s underwear hangs off the faucet, curlicues of elastic around the thighs. She tries to find something amusing about them. She could put them on her head and wear them into the living room. Pretend they’re bandages. Something Riley might do.
But there’s nothing amusing about them. She hates how goddamned human everything is. How hard it is to hate people. That woman out there, Riley’s mother, hates her, but here is her under-wear. And there on the sink is the thin pad of soap she used to wash the blood out. Just like her own mother does and she does. Because they’re humans. So damn human.
When the girl opens the bathroom door, Riley’s grandmother is standing in the kitchen, her back to the girl. She has cleared a space at the counter, rubbing half of a lemon on a squeezer. She can’t hear very well.
In the living room, Jack’s sitting on the floor now, back against the couch, legs stretched out. He points at the rocking chair. She points at it. He nods. She sits.
Now the grandmother is coming into the room, carrying a metal tray with a pitcher of lemonade and glasses. She makes her way in front of the TV and to the coffee table.
Do you need any help, Mother? Riley’s mother says. She’s holding the black socks in one hand and painting her toenails with the other, the heel of her foot against the edge of the coffee table.
Oh, no, no, she says, bending slowly over the table, so slowly lowering the tray, the glasses quaking on it. The tray’s covered in a painting of large, pink flowers. She points her jagged finger around the room, counting the faces. Then the glasses. Then the room again. One short, she says.
I can get it, Jack says. He stands, arching his back, pressing his hands against the back of his hips.
Watch it, the mother says, capping the polish to keep it from spilling.
The phone rings.
The father fumbles for the remote control, knocking it to the carpet.
The phone rings again.
The girl tries to follow the ring with her good eye, without turning her head, without making too much motion.
The mother reaches over the couch to the side table, past the lamp made of plaster cherubs that stand with harps. A reproduction, Riley told her. Reproduction means a copy worth nothing. Unless you like looking at it, of course.
The mother lifts the receiver to her ear. It’s the old kind, plugged into the wall behind the side table. Probably the same outlet they plug the vacuum into. Silly thought to have.
This is she, the mother says into the phone. Yes, the lady of the house. Yes.
It’s probably a wrong number. Probably some kid states away wanting to know which candidate she plans to vote for in the primary. Or maybe collections, like the phone calls her own mother gets now, about the hospital bills, the procedures, the cost of the bandages, the nurses, the shots, the oxygen. The number all of it adds up to. Overdue.
It must not be a wrong number, because she’s still holding the phone.
They watch her as though they can hear what she hears.
And you’re sure it’s not his teeth? the mother says. He had three cavities, she says.
The mother crosses and uncrosses her ankles. She reaches down, as if to adjust one of her socks. The ghost of the feeling, maybe.
Three or four, she says. Cavities, yes. I’ve been. I’d been. Meaning to get those fixed. Yes. Sure.
The girl could feel them when they kissed. He winced.
The father’s lips move to the captions on the TV. The girl tries to match the captions to his mouth. They don’t match. Just like the captions don’t match the mouths of the people on the TV. Maybe he’s praying.
The grandmother licks the inside of her lip.
The girl presses her fingers together. Don’t yell, she thinks. It’s nice that they even let her in the house. Her parents wouldn’t have done likewise. Jack didn’t tell her about the visit her parents paid, but she’d found out because, as her mother said, Who else can I tell? I thought your father was going to kill him, her mother said. It was like it didn’t even matter that it wasn’t Riley. Like he’d so expected Riley to answer the door that that’s who he saw when Jack came out. I kept telling him, begging him to see that it’s Jack, it’s little Jack, let him go. But Jack was wearing Riley’s boots. Maybe that’s what confused him.
But it wasn’t Riley’s fault. We all saw it. We went together to see the wandering house. Jack got scared. He fell back. He called our names.
Your father can’t see it that way. He needs someone to blame.
There’s the house, maybe.
I’m just explaining. And he’s gone out there. It wasn’t enough, either.
The phone clicks in the cradle. The mother rests her hand there a second before putting it back on her leg. Her watch has a black wristband.
The father says, So is it him or ain’t it?
She looks around the room. Face after face. At the dogs on the couch.
They say it isn’t, she says.
Well, what do they know about anything? the father says.
Teeth. They know about his teeth.
Riley smiles in school picture after school picture on the TV shelf. The mother has organized the shelves by son. Jack on one shelf. Riley on the other. Another of them together. Riley’s smile. The gap in his teeth. Riley turning when the house exploded, the light on his face. His eyes. Big. Scared.
The police decided it probably wasn’t an accident, not a coincidence that the house should explode at the exact time they approached it. A case of the wrong place, but not out of the blue. Of course, there are meth houses all over that do accidentally explode, but then there are the ones that are blown up. Because, as the police tried to explain, some guy is hyped up in that house making meth all night, for days like that because he’s on the stuff, too, and he sees shapes moving in the distance, and of course he thinks he’d found some super isolated place, a place no one can ever find—or at least not before he moves again. And he has been so careful, he thinks. But then he hears voices. Voices trying not to be loud. The crunch of sticks, brush underfoot. And of course what’s he going to think? He thinks the police found him. Are closing in. He imagines huge flanks of policemen, the whole country road lined for maybe miles with police cars. Because he’s seen the movies. Actors in FBI costumes storming buildings via fire escapes, bursting into ranch-style homes on quiet blocks, the bad guys inside never expecting it unless it’s early in the movie. So. That’s what he imagines coming at him. And probably he’s been imagining prison a lot because he knows it’s illegal what he’s doing.
So they heard the kids coming, her father said to the policeman.
The policeman nodded. We think there was just one of them. Based on the remains we found.
But there were two, the girl thinks. The flicker of a cigarette. A woman sitting on the stairs. She saw her, just for a second. Because she thought someone had already found it. Someone was already there. And paused. Had she paused? Or just in her head?
And this guy just blows up the place like it’s an accident? her father said. Something like a suicide?
Well, the policeman said, Who knows what he was thinking? Maybe he thought he could make it, like he was setting a firework off, then running away. It’s crazy, really, how fast explosions like that go up.
In a flash, the girl thought.
The policeman clapped his hands.
The girl jerked, let out a sound.
Sorry, the policeman said.
And this is common? her father said.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say common, but we’re seeing it more, sure. You’ve seen in the papers.
I think I’ll go change my dress, the mother says. Maybe lay down for a little bit.
The grandmother begins to lift the lemonade pitcher with both hands, then sets it back down and wipes her hands down the thighs of her pants. Her hands are old, clearly full of bones and veins. A few lemon peels float inside the pitcher that is glass, not of the same set as the glasses. Cubes of ice appear then disappear. She fills a glass then sets it aside. Then another.
What I want to know, Riley’s father is saying, is how they know what my boy’s teeth look like. You tell me that.
I guess maybe they took a mold at school or something, the mother says.
Because when did we ever take him to the dentist is what I want to know, the man says. He drops the footrest against the recliner and rocks forward. Until the chair comes off the floor. Until he’s balancing the whole weight of it on his slippers. She can see the metal springs under it. The backs of his feet, white with callouses. Higher and higher the chair comes off the brown carpet. She imagines him tumbling onto the carpet, the chair knocking him into the coffee table, the lemonade crashing, the mother standing, the dogs going off like dumb fireworks. And if she had the woman’s underwear on her head, well, that would just take the cake, wouldn’t it? It might feel more real than this. More how they’re feeling underneath it all.
The recliner thumps against the floor.
Usually that’s how life works. Not as bad as she imagines. Until it is.
Grandma took us to the dentist once, Jack says. You remember, Gran?
Gran looks up from pouring another glass.
They gave us…what’s the word? Not popsicles…Lollipops. That’s it. Lollipops afterward.
Helluva thing for a dentist to give out.
They did, Jack says, suddenly seeming younger. Or as young as he actually is. She always forgets he’s not as near to Riley’s and her age because he was always with them. And he’s tall for his age. Riley’s short like their mother. But she remembers when Jack was five or six and Riley’d send him down to greet her on the porch while Riley got ready upstairs.
What you got there? she said.
You don’t have to show me if you don’t want, she said to little, shy Jack in his shirts that pulled up to show the curve of his belly.
But he showed her, slowly flying the airplane out from behind his back.
She smiled, making her eyes wide, because he’d surprised her, hadn’t he? Sure he had.
Can you fly it all the way around the world? the girl said.
You should try, she said.
He climbed onto the porch railing and jumped into the yard, falling to his knees.
He stood, nodding, raising his arm so she could see the airplane was not broken.
He ran in large zigzags around the yard, his arm high, the Styrofoam airplane with the tiny pilot on the sticker that ran along the fuselage—all the way to the end of the world.
When he reached the edge where the yard met the road, she called out, Are you at the end of the world? Then cupped her hands around her mouth, saying, World, world, world, like an echo.
Yes! And he ran back, detouring over oceans he swung over in the tire swing, before jumping back out and making his way back to her.
How was the world? she said.
He nodded, looking at his feet. Shy again. Tucking the plane behind him.
It’s a long journey. I bet you’re tired.
Then Riley came out, and the girl stood, taking Riley’s hand, Jack following after with the plane as they fell off the world onto the road.
What kind of dentist does that, is what I’d like to know.
They did give us lollipops, Jack says, looking at her.
I believe you, the girl says.
Fucking lollipops, Jack says. Like he can tell she’s thinking of him as young, much younger than he feels himself to be.
Watch your mouth, the father says. Talk like that will rot your teeth right out.
As though he forgets what he’s been talking about.
Hell if I took anybody to the dentist, the grandmother says. All the glasses are full of lemonade. Only an inch left in the pitcher. The old woman rests her elbows on her knees. Don’t have to go to no dentist, she says. We come from a family of strong teeth and bone. Never been to the dentist a day in my life.
Now, that’s not true, Gran, the mother says.
The kind of dentist that gives out lollies is the kind of dentist that can mess up teeth molds. The father rocks hard in the chair. I wouldn’t put it past him, he says.
You calling me a liar? Gran says. Look here. She’s curling her lips back, until her face is mostly teeth and gums. Her gums aren’t dark pink but very light. Like the inside of a box turtle’s mouth. It’s the first summer the girl hasn’t kept a box turtle as a pet for a week, slicing tomatoes into the box, listening for it clawing the newspaper lining the bottom as a sign that it finally had its head out. Some turtles are shyer than others.
Look at them, Gran says, trying to keep her lips peeled back as she talks, turning so everyone can have a look.
The thing about it is, the mother says, it don’t matter if they know Riley’s teeth or not, as long as they got everybody else’s teeth, they know who isn’t him.
That’s how I see it.
But is that so?
Did this other somebody have a gap in his teeth like Riley?
The mother’s eyebrows are draw together. Like Riley. Should I call them back and ask? she says. Not sarcastic. Quiet.
This family, the grandmother says, has the kind of teeth and bone that if scientists find us thousands of years into the future, they’ll be able to know exactly who we were.
I’ll call them back, the mother says, but doesn’t reach for the phone.
A woman on TV is stepping around her dishwasher, holding a yellow container of dish soap. She smiles. She had her fingernails done for the commercial.
Guess I’ll never be a dish soap model, the girl says. She laughs.
Jack looks away.
C’mon, she says. That’s funny. It’s okay for it to be funny.
Jack sniffs. He keeps looking down. Holding one arm over his chest.
I think I’ll change my dress now, the mother says.
Maybe that dentist will let us have them, the father says.
When no one answers, the girl says, Have what?
Riley’s. The mold of Riley’s teeth. As long as the police have a copy, of course. Because there will be others who might be him.
Jack stands up. The ice cubes clink against the glasses. Where you going, champ? his father says.
You have company. Act right.
I’ll be back, Vix, Jack says. Just need some air.
Sure, she says.
The grandmother holds out a blue aluminum glass. Some people don’t drink lemonade in winter, she says.
The father stands.
You too? the grandmother says.
I’ll be right back, he says.
Company, she says.
It’s okay, the girl says.
Just a minute, he says. And she remembers that he’s the grandmother’s son. That he used to be a little boy, too. Long before he told Jack it was bad manners to leave a guest, he was a little boy listening to this woman tell him the same thing. And so it goes.
I was just about to leave anyway, the girl says.
The father’s face falls. There’s something I want to show you.
Have some lemonade, then? the old woman says. I won’t bite, the old woman says.
The girl never likes anyone to say that. The words themselves feel like biting words.
Really, I’m fine, she says. She knows, of course, the lemonade won’t burn her hands. Of course. But deep inside her, she still fears it.
The man disappears down the hallway, then up the stairs to where all the bedrooms are. She can hear him walking around above her. The dresser drawer sliding. Then he’s coming back down the stairs.
He sits down on the couch next to the grandmother. A dog jumps off. Barks at another. He pushes the tray to the side. He holds a little blue velvet drawstring bag.
For a second, she thinks an engagement ring will slip from it. Then he’ll tell her that Riley had asked his advice, had told him he was planning on asking her to marry him and what did he think, since they were only in high school, sure, but...And didn’t she think that night the same thing. As they left the car, shutting the car doors quietly, so as not to scare off the wandering house. Crossing the road, the bottoms of their tennis shoes against the billions of rocks sealed into the oil, sealed into a surface to walk on without it crumbling beneath you like gravel roads do. Through the weeds that scratched against their arms and the little stickers she felt clinging to her T-shirt and how irritated her mother would be when she did laundry the next day. Even though Jack was with them, she thought Riley still might pop the question. Because he was like that. Doing what you least expect. Dropping to one knee in a dark field, taking her hand. Or maybe he’d wait until they were in the wandering house. It would be a beautiful house, made of red brick, three or four stories high, surrounded by blue violets made to seem electric under the moon, like in that dream where she’s made of glass, lying beside Riley, and he’s made of glass, too, and they watch each other’s hearts beating and outside the beautiful blue flowers. So the wandering house, like a dream but not a dream, and when Jack was exploring another floor, Riley would ask her. She didn’t know if she’d say yes. When she thought of the future, he was not in it. But she could change that, surely, all she’d have to say was yes. And then the sky would be full of light. The whole forest awash. And Riley would turn to shield his eyes, his scared eyes.
Riley’s father draws the little blue velvet bag open. He reaches a finger into it. Two fingers. And takes out a little white pebble and sets it on the coffee table. It makes a little clinking.
There’s a smidgen of red paint at the end of the pebble.
You see what that is? he says, gesturing for her to lean in for a closer look. He digs into the bag and takes out another.
A tooth, she says.
That’s right, he says. Riley’s baby teeth. I kept them all. Except the one he thinks he swallowed with his milk at school.
First grade, she says.
First or second, he says.
First, she says. In the cafeteria. Everyone thought it was so funny. He thought he might die of it, lodged in his stomach forever or something.
The father looks at her. She can feel the look on the side of her face. She can’t remember which scars are on which side. The mirror reverses everything. Except time. Or maybe that, too, but it doesn’t matter since no one can see it.
He looks away. That was the second or third tooth he lost. So, almost all of them. One by one, he sets them on the coffee table. He peers down at them. She begins counting them, then stops. Riley’s teeth.
You’d think, his father says, what would I want a mold of his mouth for if I have these?
She nods. Though she’s not thinking that at all.
The thing of it is, he says. I can’t figure… He touches the tip of his finger against one tooth, then another, then another. The motion, however light it is, spins them slightly.
The man and the girl sit there, looking.
I’m sorry it wasn’t him, she says.
He nods. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. I just keep going back to it. When I replay it in my head, based on what Jack’s told me and what you told me that day I talked to you on the phone.
Okay, she says. But she wants to leave. She should have left way back, instead of going to the bathroom. But she’s here. She’s here and Riley isn’t, so she owes him. Owes everyone. Owes Riley.
Was it beautiful? he says.
It’s sort of a strange question, I guess.
I guess I don’t understand.
Was the explosion beautiful? I think about the light, all at once. That it must have been so bright. The sky like you never see a sky. And I think. Well, I think maybe it would be okay for Riley to be gone, to be dead, if the last thing he saw was just so beautiful that he could hardly believe it. Like maybe he saw the whole world at once in that sky. I could bear it a little easier, maybe, if that’s how it ended.
He looks at her. His eyes are the same color as Riley’s. The skin around them is older. The face sadder.
It was so fast, she says.
But was it beautiful?
It was bright, and Riley turned, and I saw his eyes. And then.
But the sky?
That’s okay, he says. That’s okay. He reaches out and sort of squeezes her against him. She wishes she could cry on cue.
He pulls the little bag apart and slowly draws the teeth across the table in the cup of his hand, into the blue pouch.
I don’t know what I was saving them for, he says. She says—his mother says—it’s morbid keeping them like this. But he was a good boy. I remember he had this one tooth that had been loose. I can’t tell you which one of these it was; they all look the same, but this one tooth that was loose for the longest time, two, maybe three weeks, a long time however long it was. Most his teeth, seems like they’d be loose a couple of days and then he’d be showing them to me, popping them into my hand, pointing out which end had been in his gum and which end had been the chewing end. The chewing end.
But this one tooth, man, for like weeks, you’d see him over there, watching TV or at the dinner table or waiting for the bus, just working it with his tongue back and forth, or wiggling it with his fingers. For weeks, he was at it. Get your hands out of your mouth, we’d tell him. And he would, but then he’d be at it again. Drove us all near crazy, the sound of that little tooth against his wet gum.
So finally, I say to him, That’s it, we’ve got to get that thing out of there. So I get into my tackle box and take out some fishing line, and he opens his mouth and lets me tie it around that tooth, and the tooth was just hanging there by a thread. I could have pulled it, but I didn’t, but I could have, but I liked to be honest with the boys because of my father. Anyway, so I tie the string around it, and then the other end around the front doorknob.
He pauses to look at the front door. That front door.
She looks at it.
Anyway, he knew what to do because I’d told him stories of when I was a kid, that that’s how we got our teeth out. Which wasn’t true, we just pulled them before our dad could get to us. He was a mean man. So Riley’s tied to the doorknob, and I open the door, and tell him, Okay, you just slam it shut. And out the tooth will come. Won’t hurt a bit.
Riley nods and places his hand on the doorknob, his mouth open, wider than wide. Like some trophy fish on a wall.
Go on, I tell him.
He nods, and I can tell he’s picturing doing it in his mind, but he’s not moving.
Go on, I tell him. You can do this.
I’m scared, he says to me, but it’s hard to understand, of course, because he can’t shut his mouth because of the string. I try to give him pep talks. Still, he can’t do it. I tell him to be a man, that a man would just slam that door and be done with it. I don’t mean it, of course, to hell with that. But I try it, you know, because I know I can’t untie that string, the knot’s too fine a knot to pull apart. Eventually I got him a chair from the kitchen to sit on because he stood there so long, through dinner and all of his mother’s TV shows.
Did he ever do it?
Well, we’d all gone to sleep. By that point, I’d pulled my recliner against the door so he could fall asleep in it. Then, right in the middle of the night, bam, the door slammed shut and Riley screamed. And I run down there, and he’s on his hands and knees, searching for wherever his tooth went. Guess a storm had started up, a big one, and the wind blew the door shut.
So I got down there with him with my flashlight and we looked and looked until we found it.
But we found it. We sure did.
The man stands up. For a second, she imagines him offering her the velvet bag of Riley’s teeth, but he doesn’t. You staying for dinner? he says.
She shakes her head.
Probably for the better. I wouldn’t stay for it myself if I weren’t already here.
She laughs, to turn what he said into a joke. Instead of sad.
He smiles. He puts his son’s teeth in the pocket of his shirt, pats it a few times. I should go see if she needs anything, he says. He points at the ceiling, through it to the bedroom where Riley’s mother makes no sound.
Maybe next time it’ll be him, he says.
Probably, she says.
He eases around the coffee table, touching the recliner for balance as he passes it. He will climb up the stairs to his bedroom, to open the top drawer of his dresser where he keeps Riley’s teeth and the old coins that Riley showed her once, holding each in his hand and making her guess the date. And then she’ll never see Riley’s father again. Not like this.
It was a beautiful sky, she says as he reaches the staircase.
He looks back at her, confused for a moment.
The world all at once, she says.
He nods. Sort of gives her a thumbs up. Then continues up the staircase.
She sits there a little bit longer.
Erin Pringle-Toungate grew up in rural Illinois, lived in San Marcos, TX for nearly a decade, and now lives in Eastern Washington. Her first book of stories, The Floating Order, is published by Two Ravens Press (2009). The title story of her next collection, “How The Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock & Pebble” is out as a chapbook with The Head & The Hand Press (2015), who will be publishing her novella Water Under A Different Sky in 2017. She is a recipient of a Washington State Artist Trust Fellowship (2012), and her fiction has been pub-lished widely, from War, Literature & The Arts to Sand Journal in Berlin. See www.erinpringle.com for more information and updates on her work.