art by Stephen James Kiniry
by Will McIntosh
It took a moment to place the sound, because no one should have been making it in their house. It was the soft, rhythmic squeal of a mattress and the wheeming of a woman approaching a stifled climax. The sound sent an icy blast through Phoebe's stomach. She had begun to suspect, but only in the abstract. The shift to concrete was jarring.
He wouldn't humiliate her like this, would he? In this tiny house, with his mother home?
"Whatever happened to Julie Geller last Sunday, I wonder?" his mother Theresa said. "She wasn't in church, but on Monday I seen her at the Seven Eleven, canning preserves."
Phoebe did not want to see who was in the bedroom with Stephan. And she didn't have to--she could act as if she didn't hear it, just as Stephan's mother was doing, and had been doing since Phoebe came in. But if Phoebe did that, it would be understood that she knew Stephan was sleeping with another woman, and that she accepted it. And she didn't. She would not add her silent assent in this house-wide collusion.
"She didn't look sick or nothing," Theresa said.
The tempo of the squeaking got faster, and to Phoebe's ears it got louder, until it seemed she could barely hear Theresa nattering over it. Phoebe felt herself blushing, hated how easily and extravagantly she blushed, how her emotions got pasted on her face like it was a billboard. As soon as Phoebe turned toward the hallway Theresa shut up. She went back to her corn shucking as if it required every drop of her attention.
Once Phoebe was outside the bedroom door, she wasn't sure what to do. She put trembling fingers on the doorknob, but couldn't bring herself to throw open the door, to see Stephan and whomever he was with scurry beneath the blankets like cockroaches. She dreaded this confrontation; the thought of having it while Stephan and his lover were naked was too much. But she couldn't knock; she did not need permission to enter her own bedroom. And what would she say when Stephan answered?
The familiar sound of Stephan finishing, made utterly foreign by the distance and the closed door between them, made her dilemma moot. Phoebe took a step back and waited. She heard straining mattress springs, whispered conversation, the rustle and snap of clothes being put on. The doorknob twisted.
Vickie came out of the room, her t-shirt half tucked, sneakers dangling from two fingers.
"Sweet Jesus," Phoebe said.
Vickie put her hand over her mouth. She spun back toward the room. "Stephan," she called, half statement, half question.
Stephan came to the door. He didn't seem surprised to see Phoebe, but why would he? He could have had his tryst in any of a hundred abandoned houses in town if he wanted to hide it from her.
"Go on home, kiddo," Stephan said, putting his hand on Vickie's head. Vickie scurried down the hall. The screen door slammed.
"'Kiddo.' That's wonderfully apropos," Phoebe said. She took a deep breath. She didn't want to cry in front of him.
"It's wonderfully apropos of you to use a ten-gallon word like apropos in this situation."
"She's fourteen! You're a pedophile!" Tears squeezed free despite her efforts.
"Bullshit. She has the body of a woman, so she's a woman. That's how it works now."
"How what works now? Adultery? And she's one of my students!"
"One of your students." Stephan let the word drip with sarcasm. "When are you going to realize that this isn't the world you grew up in? Kids work now. Everybody works the fields, or we starve. Nobody's applauding your little night school, you know."
Phoebe shoved past him, into their bedroom. The sheets were tangled, the bedspread on the floor. Phoebe sobbed, pulled her old backpack out of the closet. She started with the things on her dresser, the photos and figurines, stowing them carefully in the side pockets: her little stuffed piglet, Sir Francis Bacon; a photo of her grandmother as a teenager, standing on a dock in her swimsuit; a creased and faded postcard of a water tower; her great grandmother's wrist watch.
"Don't be an asshole. Just deal with it." Stephan said from the doorway. "We'll still be together. Vickie will just visit once in a while."
She wheeled around. "Are you kidding me? Do you hear what you're saying?"
Stephan folded his arms across his chest, probably thinking it looked manly and forceful when it only looked defensive.
"Where else are you gonna go?" he asked.
Phoebe returned to her packing. She would just pack. She wouldn't think about what came next, she would just get through the packing. There was a picture of her and Stephan propped on the nightstand, their heads close together, their mouths wide with laughter. She tore it in half and in half again, wheeled and hurled it toward Stephan. He wasn't there to see the pieces flutter to the carpet.
There were too many books for her to bring them all. Five, she decided. All paperbacks. She pulled Pride and Prejudice off the shelf, stuffed it between two t-shirts. That would be calming; women drinking tea on green lawns. Beautiful, flowery language. What else? Breath Like Twigs in Winter, by Joy Carroll. And something funny--she pulled down a Sidewise Follies comic strip compendium. Some poetry--a collection by her favorite, David Starnes.
The reality of what she was doing hit her. Where was she going to go? She didn't know anyone outside of Waynesboro any more, and she couldn't stay here. Could she? She wavered. She wanted to stay here, in her house, where all of her things were, where she felt safe.
She thought of Vickie standing in the doorway, with her child's hips and woman's breasts.
Vicky will just visit once in a while.
No, she had to go. It would be sick to be part of this.
There wasn't much food, but she took what was there. A jar of blueberry preserves, a hunk of leftover pork, a big Tupperware container of peanuts, half a loaf of buckwheat bread.
The last thing she packed was a handful of maps, a tacit acknowledgment that she was going to unfamiliar lands, a crossing over from just packing to really leaving. With a deep, shaky breath she donned the biggest, widest hat she owned to protect her from the sun, slung the huge pack over her shoulders, and squeezed out of her bedroom.
"You're making a big mistake--" Theresa began as Phoebe crossed the living room, but Phoebe walked right on past, out the door, into hot, cloudless sunshine.
Vickie was across the street in her driveway, sitting in a wading pool.
Phoebe stormed a few steps up the driveway. "Does your mother know what you're doing?" Vickie looked at her, wide-eyed with fear. Phoebe wanted to push the brat's head under the water and hold it there.
But it wasn't the child's fault, it was the man's; she shouldn't lose sight of that, shouldn't blame Vickie. It was so hard not to. Phoebe willed herself back into the street.
She passed a group clearing a new field. They'd finished digging the ditch and installing the rhizome barrier, and were readying a bulldozer to tear up the bamboo in the reclaimed area. They watched her pass, making her feel self-conscious. She suspected most of them were not distraught to see her go. She was not one of these people, didn't know what to say to them even after sweating in the fields with them for the past two years. These were Stephan's people, always had been.
As soon as she was out of sight she left the road and crossed a field, careful not to damage the crops, and walked along the scar that marked the rhizome barrier until she found an opening where the bamboo was patchy. She pulled the machete out of her pack and headed into the dark forest alone. With each swing of the machete she cried harder, until her tears rendered the bamboo a smudged green and yellow kaleidoscope.
She stopped, set her pack down. It was time to think about where she was going.
No, it was time to admit where she was going. She already knew where she was going; she'd just compartmentalized that piece until she was ready to deal with it.