Elizabeth Genovise

        Midnight finds Mill stretched out on the couch in front of the living room window, her .22 perfectly balanced against her shoulder, the barrel of the rifle peeking out between two slats of the blinds she has been meaning to change for months.
        “Mill. For God’s sake.” Martin is standing behind her, half-asleep and wearing only his camouflage boxers, scattered tattoos, and the long scars that mark his arms and shoulders. “There’s nobody trying to get in here.”
        She is wearing a green silk teddy embroidered with leaves and she pulls back the bolt. “Like hell there isn’t. This is the third time, Martin. I know what I heard, and I know what I saw.”
        “That same shadow? How do you know it wasn’t just some dog?”
        Slowly her eyes float over the barrel to his, and he backs up a step, throwing up both hands. “OK. You know what, do what you feel you need to do.” He disappears into their bedroom, but a moment later, returns with a cartridge box—50 shells—and sets it gently on the floor beside the couch. On his way back to bed, he stops to look into Mill’s son’s room. She hears him touching things in there, knows the sound of Charles’ closet being opened. After what seems like a long pause, Martin goes back to bed.

        When she first moved from Chicago to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Mill was fooled by the sound of Cecil’s tractor engine at her front door; she always thought it was UPS. In time, though, she learned that Cecil preferred to drive his tractor directly to his neighbors’ doorsteps, even if it meant demolishing a flower or two, and she knew when he was coming.
        Now, Martin having left for work at the Jiffy Lube, Mill gets up from Charles’ bed at the familiar rumble. “Goddam sun,” she mutters, blocking the light with one hand as she opens the front door.
        On his tractor, Cecil is haloed in the fresh sun, and the graying blond of his beard looks like it’s on fire. He has a plastic bottle of Canadian Superior between his knees, and what looks like a cantaloupe in the other. “Motherfucker,” he yells at her over the engine. “I been waiting three days to give you this melon and I keep forgetting. You doin’ alright?”
        Mill reaches for it, hefts its cool, pale weight. The watery smell of the fruit washes over her and she presses her nose to the cantaloupe’s skin. “How many to a vine this year?”
        “Two!” Cecil is triumphant. He offers her the whiskey, but Mill shakes her head.
        “So I heard your dumbass husband and his tramp are coming down.” Cecil is still yelling.
        “Ex,” she reminds him. “Ex-husband. But that first part is right.”
        “What time they gettin’ here? You gonna share this with them?”
        Mill hugs the melon to her chest. “Hell no. He said around eight. They’re getting a hotel in Knoxville.”
        “Probably the best fucking hotel they got. Bet she’s a real priss, a stinking princess.”
“Cecil, you noticed anyone creeping around my house at night? Anything strange lately?”
        Cecil scratches at his beard with the same hand that grips the whiskey. “Not that I can think of. I’m usually out in the yard pretty late and I ain’t seen anyone. You got somebody messing with you?”
“I don’t know,” she says, still squinting into the daylight. “I keep seeing shadows and hearing things by the porch. I keep thinking someone’s trying to get in.”
        “Don’t know about that, but I’ll keep two eyes open.” Cecil has already started rolling down the lawn, and he waves back at her as he starts across the street. Mill closes the door. The rifle is still on the couch, and she considers leaving it there for when her ex-husband and his wife arrive.

        She waters her son’s bonsai tree, marks this down on a sheet of paper beside it. She is determined to keep it green—for years if she can. The phone rings and she ignores it until the fifth ring. “Hello?” She is still holding her tiny watering can, or rather, Charles’ watering can.
        “This is Sandra at the Oak Ridge Public Library.” The woman’s voice is crisp. “I’m calling about a set of overdue items? We’ve tried to reach you several times.”
        “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean,” Mill says sweetly. She sets down the can, wanders over to a stack of books, ten or twelve, with glossy covers and titles involving pirates, gemstones, and the Loch Ness.
        “Your son has several books checked out in his name, ma’am,” the woman goes on, now clearly irritated. “Those books are more than three months overdue. You will need to return them, or pay for them. We have this documented—if you really don’t have the books, he may have lost them or misplaced them without you knowing—”
        “My son,” Mill says calmly, “never lost a library book in his life.”
        “Ma’am—”
        “Tell you what. I’ll check around for them, and if I find them . . . I’ll pay for them.”
        “Ma’am?”
        Mill drops the phone into its cradle and rests her hand on the pile of books for a moment before moving into the kitchen. She investigates the refrigerator—she has already made up her mind that she will not go out and purchase a single thing for this dinner with her ex-husband and his wife. The possibilities then are: toast; cereal with no milk; yogurt; macaroni and cheese from a box (why is this in the fridge? she wants to know); grilled cheese sandwiches. She checks the cabinets, which are equally drab, filled only with tomato paste, scattered half-used pasta boxes, old saltines, and tea bags. There is also Martin’s stash of cigarettes, which he only began smoking again a few weeks ago. There is nothing else save for a little pile of fruit snacks, Teddy Grahams, and gummy bears, set carefully to one side.
         “Well they can have pizza from Venice,” she mutters. Venice’s pizza is terrible and it’s a local joke that the residents always tell strangers to eat there.
        She goes back to the fridge, pulls out some rotting apples and a couple of questionable-looking oranges. Cecil’s melon fills the space they occupied, and Mill opens the back door onto her deck porch and flings the apples and oranges into the jungle below. The house stands on a steeply-sloping hill, and the backyard isn’t really a backyard, but a mass of trees and shrubbery behind which, out of sight, are more houses downhill. Beyond the trees is the ridgeline, very blue at night, but becoming more and more difficult to make out as the weeks pass and the growth behind the house rises. Martin calls it their Compost Heap because they have gotten into the inexplicable habit of throwing things back there—old fruit, meat gone bad, coffee they don’t finish. It seems that the ferns and leaves reach higher every morning.
        The village has called them several times about the Compost Heap, demanding that they clear it all out, but Martin usually fords the calls, and he won’t have it. “Fucking right we’re leaving it the way it is,” he’ll say. “It’s our property and we’ll turn it into a goddam Amazon if we want to! I’m paying taxes, aren’t I?”
        The kitchen phone rings, and Mill hesitates: at this hour, it will either be the village again, or her ex.
        It’s her ex, Paul. “Millicent?”
        She cringes but doesn’t bother to correct him. “Yes, Paul. Are you in town?”
        “Not quite—still on 75. We’ve had a bit of a rough drive. Accidents everywhere, and Amanda got so hungry that we had to stop. That, and—”
        “Sorry it’s been so difficult,” Mill says dryly.
        “Oh, not at all, we’re just fine. We’ll be in by eight-thirty.”
        There is a pause, and Paul says, “Will he be there?”
        Mill laughs, a short bark. “Martin? No, Paul, I’m going to kick him out for the night so that you won’t be offended.”
        “Jesus, Millicent, I’m just asking.”
        “Will Amanda be there?”
        Paul sighs. “OK, OK. I just wondered. I just think it’s a little—strange, that’s all.”
        “Strange for the man Charles and I have been living with for three years to be at the house for dinner?”
        “Well—Charlie wasn’t his son.”
        Mill’s hand tightens around the phone and she envisions the receiver slamming through the window that overlooks the Heap.
        “Are you still there?”
        “I’m sorry,” she says, in the same tone she used with the librarian. “How was Charles your son, exactly?”
        “Millicent—”
        “When’s his birthday, Paul?”
        “Oh for Pete’s sake—”
        “When did he learn to ride a bike? Who was his best friend in preschool? What was the name of his first pet?”
        “Stop this, will you?”
        “That’s probably a good idea, before you start guessing dog names, and then I have to tell you it was a fucking snail that he chose. A snail named Horace. ‘Your’ son named his snail after Horace Kephart? The guy who trailblazed the Smokies? Only my son would have a grasp of irony at the age of seven.”
        “Millicent, what in God’s name are you talking about?”
        “Forget it. Eight-thirty?”
        “Eight-thirty.”
        She hangs up and checks on Horace, whose brown feelers wave up at her from under a pebble.

        After she’d discovered that Paul had been sleeping with the same woman he’d dated before he and Mill got married, Mill decided it was time to go back south. She got custody of Charles, then two years old, without much of a fight from Paul, and went down to Knoxville, where she’d visited as a girl. The dream of going back had been there for years, she realized—it had been an intermittent pull, a soft calling, all through high school and college, and even during her marriage. At the time she didn’t know why. Her memory of the place was comprised of a few bright but random splices of time: there were two hiking trails in the Smokies she’d taken with her cousins; a sculptor with a roadside shop who let her take home chunks of spalted maple wood; a woman who sold her strawberries from a wooden cart and invited Mill and her cousins to come out to her farm anytime to pick berries themselves. There was a blue cross, afire with tiny bulbs, perched high on a forested hill. There was an inn—the Old Mill—that she walked by one night and found herself staring at for a good hour. It had a lit gate, big windows reflecting the mountains above, a wheel churning water, the smell of baking apples wafting out from an open door. A nebulous garden filled the space between the inn and the next house. The place, she thought then, looked like it would stand forever, like it was made of something that could weather anything.
        It wasn’t long after finding a job in Oak Ridge that she found Martin. Like so many other men she met in the area, he didn’t go by his first name—Martin was his middle name, Jeremiah his first. “You can see why I don’t go with that one,” he’d drawled to her the day they met. He gestured across his own body. “It don’t fit.” He was right—he had tattoos across his swollen biceps, untamed hair that wasn’t exactly Biblical, and a way of standing that made it seem like he was about to take a swing at someone. But he couldn’t help that—“It’s this accident I was in, my posture’s all fucked up”—and when he first kissed her, he was so gentle she had to keep her eyes open to make sure it was happening.
        They camped. Martin showed her what boots to buy, how to compress a sleeping bag, how to strap on a 65-liter backpack (“don’t let it overwhelm you; think of it as a little spider monkey who wants to come along for the ride”). He showed her how to choose a good walking stick from a woodworker just outside Gatlinburg. The first trail they hit was the Kephart Prong south of Newfound Gap. They got a late start and in the blue-green twilight passed the ruins of old chimneys and cairns, broken walls, water pipes, railroad ties. They crossed the prong over and over again, stepping from stone to stone in the fading light, rarely speaking. In the shelter at the trail’s end Martin laid her on his sleeping pad, deftly undid the three buttons on her khakis, put one hand under her back and wrapped the other around her wrist, and made it clear to her that his gentleness extended only as far as she wanted it to.
        He thrilled her. Paul had been the only one before him, and Paul had always been so unresponsive, so unlikely to initiate any kind of touch, that she’d always thought of sex as something labored and leading only to more frustration. When she explained to Martin, he said with disgust, “The pansy ass. I know his ilk.”
        Mill wasn’t sure what ilk Paul was, but the man surely lacked spirit. Even little Charles seemed hardly to remember him. Martin had never laughed so hard as when Mill asked Charles one Christmas, “Do you miss your Dad, honey?” and Charles, looking up from a plastic tugboat, simply cocked his head at her, baffled.
        Paul, still a faithful Catholic, and Mill’s parents, also Catholic, had asked her literally hundreds of times, “Why aren’t you getting married to Martin?”
        Mill’s response: “Once was overkill.”
        She didn’t mean it. She was just happy with Martin and Charles, knew that Martin wasn’t going anywhere, and saw no reason to ask the world to prove it on paper. It was only six months ago that Martin had told her over dinner that he wanted to formally adopt Charles and so they needed to get married. “I mean I know we already are,” he’d said, his face burning a little—which amazed her—“We’re like the couple in Farewell to Arms. We don’t need no papers. But for him I think maybe we should.”
        That was Martin—he changed oil and he read Hemingway, so many times over that he’d mumble passages while he washed dishes or cleaned tools. She loved him. But Charles was killed before Martin could adopt him, and so that beautiful dinner, at the Flatwater Grill on Melton Lake, was all for nothing.

        By eight o’clock, the pizza has been ordered, and Charles’ room secured: Mill has hidden away everything small enough to hide, every book and toy, and has even folded up his bedclothes, the Thomas the Tank Engine pillows he was just beginning to be embarrassed about. She doesn’t want Paul looking at any of it, doesn’t think he’s earned it.
        The rest of the house is still in disorder, though, and she feels hopeless to change it. She has spent so much time in Charles’ room that the other rooms surprise her a little each time she steps into them. There is the pile of dishrags, folded differently than usual because Martin folded them; her bottles of lotions and soaps in the bathroom are misaligned. She keeps losing things: her calculator for the bills, her little pestle for making herb tea, her backup pair of boots. This morning she couldn’t find her birth control pills. She half expects to discover pieces of furniture missing in the living room—their house, their world, has seemed so off kilter.
        In the hallway she makes a half-hearted attempt to straighten the line of framed photographs. They are hers—one pictures a dragonfly on a river stone, another a pair of bees nestled in a bouquet of bright green blooms, another, a butterfly with iridescent blue wings. They are from the many trails she has taken in the Smokies and in the Bald River Gorge south of here. The bees are from Andrews Bald, where she once stumbled upon a couple making love in the tall grass. She smiles at the memory, but the smile dies quickly. She closes the door to Charles’ room, makes sure it clicks.
        The front door swings open simultaneously. “Mill-li-cent,” Martin sings out.
        She stands, arms crossed, in the hallway. “That’s not even funny.”
        Martin is unbuttoning his uniform smock and heeling off his boots. “I know—sorry.” He kicks his boots over to the closet door and rubs at his hair. “I can’t tell if I’m nervous, or if I’m just getting ready for a fight,” he admits.
        Something unidentifiable tumbles out of his hair onto the floor, and Mill laughs. “Could you time something like that during dinner? But make sure it’s a bug or something worse?”
        Martin rakes his hair upwards. “It could be arranged. What are we eating?”
        “Venice.”
        He grins. “Show no mercy.”
        “I hope they meet Cecil.”
        “I hope he forces them to meet him.”
        “I got Charles’ room ready,” Mill says, looking over her shoulder at the closed door.
        “Ready?”
        “I hid everything.”
        Martin moves carefully, not looking at her as he sets all their shoes in careful disarray near the door. She notes that he perches his dirtiest boot up against the coffee table.
        “I dragged the mower out and a bunch of other crap from the garage and left it in the lawn this morning on purpose,” Martin confesses.
        “I threw more shit into the Compost Heap.”
        “Should I put the couch out there in the yard?”
        She kisses him, tasting sweat, his long day. “They will be here any minute.”
        While Martin showers, twilight falls. Mill paces the house. She is listening hard—first, for the sound of the water shutting off, and second, for sounds on the porch. There is a soft clunk as if in answer to her thoughts, and instead of going for the .22, Mill strides to the door and throws it open.
        Outside is only the darkening sky, already showing thousands of stars, and the scattered soft porch lights on Robertsville Road. When her eyes adjust, she can see a deer standing in her neighbor Rusty’s lawn. It is not uncommon—on a walk once, she nearly fell over a tiny fawn curled into a ball in the deep grass of Cecil’s side yard—but her breath catches.
        Headlights swing over the top of the hill that is her block, and a Range Rover slows down in front of her house. She watches as the driver, her ex-husband, hesitates at the choices: parking on the street, or parking on the lawn. He chooses the street.
        Mill peeks backward into the living room; the rifle is still lying on the sofa, and she grins, leaving it there. After a moment Martin joins her at the door, clad in a fresh shirt, and then Paul and Amanda are climbing out of their car and coming up the broken walkway arm-in-arm.
        “Well, you made it,” Mill says. The words come out dry.
        “We did,” says Paul, glancing around at the street. He starts up the porch steps with Amanda, and then stops for a moment, staring; Mill follows his gaze to the tricycle that is parked next to the house.
        “He outgrew that ages ago,” is all she can think of to say. Paul blinks hard and steps up onto the landing, taking a quick look around as Mill gestures him into the living room. Amanda follows, and in the porch light, she is very much the same as Mill remembers her: silky hair dyed black, thick eye makeup, tight jeans. She is spilling out of a black blouse that probably cost seventy dollars. Mill has an unexpected rush of pride: not too long ago, she would have felt inferior somehow, embarrassed beside this refined femininity, but not anymore. Long miles on trails and the sight of her own flushed skin and hazel eyes in mirrors after her hikes have taught her something about her own beauty. When Paul’s eyes slide over her, Mill knows what he sees—the brown jacket that could easily be a man’s, the boots, the canvas belt, the chain necklace that is her only jewelry—and she is happy.
        Martin often reads her mind, and he smiles at her. “You guys want to sit down? We ordered pizza and it should be here any minute,” he says, ushering them into the kitchen where he has rolled in Mill’s swivel chair to add a fourth place to their table. “Don’t worry, I’ll take the office chair,” he adds.
        Mill hears little of the small talk that begins their night; she is studying Paul, his perfectly-cut hair, clean hands, faultless clothes. There is something very practiced about his movements, and it bothers her. She is trying to imagine him when they first met when she catches the word “ritual” and breaks out of her haze.
        “What was that?” she asks.
        It is Amanda who is speaking; she turns her thickly-lashed eyes on Mill and says earnestly, “I was saying to Martin, that this is really important to both of us, it’s a ritual experience if that makes sense.”
        Mill frowns. “What is?”
        Paul squints at her. “Have you not been listening? Being here, saying goodbye to Charlie.”
        “You could have come to the funeral and the wake,” Mill points out.
        Paul cringes. “You know we couldn’t make it. I explained why I couldn’t come then. You think I wanted it to be that way? It nearly killed me to not be able to come. My job doesn’t allow for spontaneous disappearances.”
        Mill kicks Martin under the table—she can tell he’s getting fired up—and he drums his fingers on the tabletop. “I understand,” Mill says. “I guess neither of us has to worry about that too much.”
        Martin snorts. “That’s the truth. We don’t make enough money.”
        Amanda looks confused. “Enough money to do what?”
        “To care all that much about our jobs,” Mill explains.
        Paul says, “Wouldn’t you care more if you weren’t making much money? Not to press the point—”
        “Paul.” Amanda reaches over, smoothes his hair. “Honey.”
        Martin’s nose crinkles. “Was that the pizza guy?”
        Mill stands. “I think I heard something too.”
        They all pause, listening, but there is nothing. “Maybe it’s that guy again,” Mill says uneasily, glancing at Martin. She wants to go to the living room window, to peer out onto the street for the shadow she has been seeing, but wills herself to sit back down.
        Amanda says, “What guy?”
        “Nothing. Anyhow . . . have you been out here before, Amanda?” Mill asks the question as lightly as she can, trying to look at Amanda without really looking at her, the woman her husband betrayed her with.
        Amanda, clearly undergoing the same struggle, avoids Mill’s eyes, but her voice is sweet: “No, I haven’t. It’s beautiful country. I’ve never seen hills like this. It’s so bucolic. I can see why you’d want to move out here.”
        “Charles loved it,” Martin breaks in. “He was a born-and-bred Southerner, don’t matter where he came from originally. That kid read more about the mountains than I ever did and I been here my whole life.”
        Mill looks at him in surprise, but Martin goes on: “He was like a freaking encyclopedia. His latest thing was ice ages. He would give us these reports at night by the TV. Like he was a reporter. Did you know,” and he leans forward, toward Amanda, “that the Smokies stayed standing, one ice age after another? Nothing could touch ’em. Everything else was getting changed and they somehow got through every one.”
        Amanda is polite; she smiles and nods along with his words, but Paul is blinking as though Martin is speaking a foreign language. Martin doesn’t notice and keeps on talking. “You know some of the first settlers out here were Scottish? They stayed here because they missed their mountains back in Scotland. If you ever listen to the music from around here you can kinda hear that in it. Scottish music. It’s because they couldn’t stand to leave their mountains behind.”
        Paul says, “Well that’s something.” He glances at Mill. “Millicent, I should have asked when I first came in here—I was hoping you’d let me go into Charlie’s room for awhile. I’d just like to see it. I’m sure you understand. Would that be all right?”
        His voice is respectful, but he is already standing, sure of himself. Mill looks up at him. “Actually, I would prefer that you didn’t,” she says softly.
        Amanda’s eyes widen and she waits. Paul says, “I’m sorry?”
        “I would prefer that you didn’t go in there.” Mill wraps her arm around Martin’s chair back. “I don’t really feel comfortable with that if you want to know the truth. Isn’t it enough to be here and talk about him a little? And besides,” she adds, seeing that he is already moving toward the hall, “won’t it just be kind of . . . do you really think it will do something for you?”
        Paul opens his mouth, and then the doorbell rings. Amanda says gently, “Why don’t you sit down, for now,” and he does, not taking his eyes off Mill. She stands up and realizes she is trembling.

        Martin follows Mill to the door and hands her a roll of cash for the pizza. “As far as I can tell, even this is just an official duty of some kind,” Mill mutters as she makes change for the delivery boy’s tip. “Flatliner that he is. I just can’t do it; I can’t let him take Charles.”
        “He can’t,” Martin says quietly. He takes the pizza box in both arms. “You should know that.”
        “I guess I should. But I can’t stop shaking. I don’t know why.”
        Martin looks back toward the kitchen. “If it makes you feel any better—they really don’t like our house.” He grins. “Did you notice I’ve been letting the mail pile up? They had to have seen it on the way in. Isn’t that a total white trash thing to do?”
        Mill smiles and they reenter the kitchen together. “Food’s on,” Martin announces, and unceremoniously dumps the pizza box on the center of the table. He flips the lid, revealing Venice’s largest pizza, a monstrosity of greasy cheese dotted with crumbly bits of sausage and limp vegetables. Amanda purses her lips and glances at Paul.
        Mill doles out the slices, two to a plate, and passes them around. Amanda asks for a fork. Martin pours Coke from a two-liter bottle in the fridge. They chew in silence for a few minutes, Mill struggling not to laugh as Amanda picks at her slice, until Paul says, “Just out of curiosity—do you always keep a rifle in the living room? It was kind of impossible not to see it on our way in.”
        “Not usually,” Martin says. He folds his pizza in half and takes a huge bite. Around the bite he adds, “Lately Mill’s been keeping it out for safety’s sake. We think somebody’s been creeping around our house at night.”
        Amanda looks at Mill. “Is there a lot of crime in the area?”
        “Not really. Everybody here knows everybody else, so I think that’s sort of a natural deterrent, you know? People know that if they do something to one house, there are probably five neighbors watching who are going to take it personally.”
        “But you’re still worried,” Amanda points out.
        Mill says, “Just taking precautions. I know we’re not exactly a gated community here, but it’s safer than you’d think.”
        Paul sets down his pizza, clearly disgusted with it. He pushes his plate a little to one side and says, “Really, Mill, I don’t want to make too much of this, but the gun is just ridiculous. I can’t believe you keep it lying around the house that way. It’s bad enough that you own one to begin with.” Paul looks sidelong at Martin, who has pushed up his sleeves, and says suddenly, “You get those scars in a knife fight or something?”
        Martin’s jaw goes hard and Mill says rapidly, “I had the gun long before Martin moved in, in case you were wondering.”
        “I still don’t understand why you have it.”
        “How about you tell me why not?”
        Amanda shifts in her seat, touches Paul lightly on the arm. “Honey, maybe we should change the subject? Let’s not get into some political conversation, OK?” She looks at Mill, then Martin. “Once he gets started . . . ,” she says, rolling her eyes a little, trying to smile.
        Paul ignores her entirely. “I’ll tell you why not. Because it’s immoral. It’s not up to you to decide who gets hurt or killed if someone breaks into your house.”
        Martin’s jaw drops. “Could you unpack that for us maybe?”
        Paul leans back, crosses his arms. “Well,” he says slowly, “say somebody breaks in here in the middle of the night. Are you willing to possibly take his life, in self-defense? Who says you get to be the one to decide who gets hurt or killed? You’ve put yourself in the position of God when you pick up that gun.”
        Mill starts to speak, but Martin leans forward, putting both arms on the table. “Nobody here is going to shoot a man without good reason,” he says. “But let’s say this man comes in armed. Let’s say he’s after my wife or child.” His voice breaks on “child” and he clears his throat. “Let’s say that. You’re telling me I should stand there and let whatever happens happen? You’re telling me I can’t even pop this guy in the leg to get him to back off my family?”
        “It’s Biblical, first of all, though I don’t know what your faith is,” Paul retorts. “‘Turn the other cheek.’”
        “That is some amazing bullshit,” Martin mutters.
        Mill blinks, watching her ex-husband as he settles into the wan, confident smile she remembers too well. “So you’re saying,” she murmurs, “that it’s wrong to make an active choice about who lives or dies.”
        “Yes.”
        “But you’re making a choice either way,” she says excitedly, sitting up. “If you stand by and let the guy hurt your family, you are still making a choice. You are sacrificing someone else for the sake of your own morality. You’re the good guy because you transfer the responsibility onto the criminal? That makes no sense.”
        Paul’s mouth opens and closes, and Mill presses on: “You’ve just chosen the criminal over the husband or wife or child. If you want to sacrifice yourself, that’s one thing, but if you stand by and watch, you’ve surrendered the innocent to the malicious. And then you get to feel good about yourself for being so—so what? So forgiving? So nonjudgmental? Is that moral? That’s just cowardice if you ask me. So explain how that’s moral, Paul. Explain how it’s moral not to fight for what you love.”
        Martin says through gritted teeth, “I’ll bet you’d just be too scared to draw his fire on you. You pick up a gun to defend someone, now you’re the one being aimed at. It’s all about self-preservation, ain’t it, man? You get to go unnoticed even by God. You get to stand there with your hands folded.” He shakes a cigarette out of the packet in his shirt pocket, doesn’t light it. “Somebody or something has got you gutted.”
        Paul’s face is completely drained of color, and he stares at Martin, speechless. At last he says, “This is just unbelievable. I don’t even know who you are. I don’t know who you think you are.”
Amanda says sharply, “I think that’s enough.” She reaches for the bottle of Coke and noisily unscrews the cap, refills her cup. “Honestly, I don’t know why we’re having this conversation of all things,” she goes on, her voice pleading, eyes flickering over to her husband. “Can we please drop it? Paul? Please? We’re here because of your son, remember?”
        Mill says, “His son?” and Martin sucks in a breath.
        Paul stands up. “I’ve had about enough talk, too,” he says. “I’ve had enough of all of this, actually. I’d like to see Charlie’s room now if you’re over whatever your issue was an hour ago.”
        “Don’t you go in there,” Mill says quietly. “And no one ever called him Charlie. He hates being called Charlie.”
        “I have every fucking right,” Paul says, voice rising. But he stands motionless, and suddenly, Mill realizes that her ex-husband is afraid of Martin. Or maybe of both of them.
        She looks at Martin, whose face is beginning to turn red. His hands grip the edges of the table. “Look, man,” he says, “I’ll be honest, I don’t know what you’re doing here in the first place. Trying to claim something that ain’t yours. It’s a crock if you ask me. It’s chickenshit. You show up now, just in time to get all teary-eyed over your kid’s old toys? What the fuck is that? Where the hell were you?”
        “I don’t have to listen to this,” Paul says. His face is stone. “Not from some punk who hasn’t mastered third-grade grammar. I’m going in my son’s room now if you don’t mind.”
        Martin gets up fast, and Paul, clearly drawing on every ounce of composure, walks quickly but calmly out of the kitchen and down the hallway. Amanda sits frozen at the table, not looking at anyone. Mill puts her hand over Martin’s, and then leaves; Martin sits down again. He looks at Amanda and says, “You all just do not belong here.”

        Mill pauses in the hallway, closes her eyes, breathes. She thinks of the story she and Martin told Paul: that the rockslide happened lightning-quick, on a deep curve of 129, the Dragon’s Tail, an infamously dangerous road in the North Carolina mountains. They were heading back from a long day in the Joyce Kilmer Forest where the three of them had hiked until twilight. They had driven this way many times, and had never seen so much as a stone in the road. The avalanche crushed the back of the car where Charles sat strapped in and sleeping. They were alone out there; there was no help for hours, and it was pure chance that the front of the car remained intact, that neither Martin nor Mill was killed. At the time, Mill felt there was no way to tell Paul how it had really happened, not without corrupting something she wanted to keep pure.
        She thinks of the truth: that there were two other cars, both in front of them, when the boulders came exploding from the mountainside and rained down around them. The rocks completely demolished the car in front of them; the second car was difficult to see but there was smoke rising from it after the first sudden silence. Martin knew about rockslides, knew that they stopped and then started again in waves, and he screamed at Charles as Charles unbuckled his seatbelt and went flying from the backseat out into the road. Charles ran straight for the third car, seeming to understand that there was nothing they could do for the other one. In a mad chase Martin followed, Mill close behind, and then the second avalanche showered them. Charles was on the ground within seconds, Martin’s arms and shoulders cut to ribbons, Mill somehow untouched except by dust. She knelt there screaming over her motionless son and over Martin, who was knocked unconscious and bleeding fast into the pavement, until someone from the third car came scrambling to her side with a cell phone.
        The question later was, of course, what made him do it? Mill never once believed she had been that good of a parent that it was her own instruction that led to the choice Charles made after the first rockslide. Half-dreaming and dazed from painkillers, Martin said to her in the hospital, “He did it because he grew up out here,” and passed out again.
        She feels that there are some questions which cannot be answered; they go too far beyond her. But these mountains, she knows, are as old as death, as old as love. It is something she has no way of communicating to Paul; it is something that her son somehow understood before she did. And she knows she has to keep it safe, hidden from unknowing eyes and clumsy hands. She is afraid of this thing dying. Afraid that the world she fell in love with as a girl in Knoxville is the last of its kind.

        She finds her ex-husband sitting on Charles’ bed, holding a DVD in his hands—March of the Penguins. Paul is staring dumbly down at it, rubbing his thumb over the picture on the front.
        “He loved that,” Mill says quietly. “He watched it hundreds of times. He never minded things that moved slowly.”
        Paul looks up, and his eyes are red. “I always pictured him on Power Wheels and racing remote-control trucks through the house. Playing video games.”
        “He wasn’t like that at all. One of our neighbors gave him a Power Wheel car their kid outgrew, and Charles just took it apart and put it back together until it got too easy for him.”
        “What else did he do?”
        Mill lets out a long breath. “It’s almost impossible to answer that question, you know that. You could have easily found out for yourself ages ago.”
        “I know.”
        “Paul.” She steps closer and stops. “I need to know why you are doing this. I don’t want to be callous, but I have to ask. You never cared before. None of this feels genuine to me.”
        Paul looks at the ceiling, then closes his eyes. “I don’t know exactly. I remembered this time when Charlie wanted to go to sleep with one of my shirts and I told him no. All he wanted was—I don't know.” He opens his eyes, and he is abruptly his old self again, shrugging and standing up with complete composure. “Well. In any case. I suppose it’s just a matter of closure. You took a psychology class or two.”
        Mill laughs softly. “You know, I almost had you for a minute there—I almost saw something different. But you disappeared right away. I wonder if you are going to live your whole life like this, in the mode you are in now.”
        He looks confusedly at her. “What are you talking about?”
        “Nothing. Forget it.”
        For a long moment he circles the room, looks at the few things she has left out—Charles’ lighthouse lamp, a giant poster picturing a fossilized mastodon, a wooden chest Martin built, with figures of deer and elk carved into the oak. But he looks at everything blindly, and she sees his arms go limp with a kind of helplessness: Charles can’t be known this way. Paul, too, is on the brink of answers that are too much to face. Mill leans against the doorframe, feeling the anger drain from her.
        “Paul,” she sighs, “I think maybe you should go home.”
        He says nothing, just pushes past her through the hallway and back to the kitchen where Amanda is already standing up, setting her purse on her shoulder. Martin has boxed the pizza and put it out of sight, and the plates are stacked in the sink.
        Amanda looks at Paul. “Are you ready to go? Are you okay?”
        “I’m fine.”
        Martin hangs back and Mill follows them to the door. She watches as they make their way back to their Range Rover. From across the street, Cecil, bathed in the light from his toolshed, yells at them: “Hey ya’ll! Hope ya have a great drive back! Shame I didn’t get to meet ya!”
        Amanda grabs Paul’s arm and looks back at Mill in alarm. Mill looks past her and just waves at Cecil, who waves back; he’s holding what looks like a trowel. He has a habit of gardening late at night. Gardening and drinking, switching back and forth between the two.
        Paul and Amanda climb quickly into their car and in a moment the Range Rover glides back onto the road. The taillights vanish over the top of the hill and Mill lets out her breath.

        When Mill reenters the house, Martin is sitting at the kitchen table under the soft light, slicing into Cecil’s cantaloupe with a steak knife. The fresh watery aroma rises up and fills the room. Mill sits down across from him and takes the half-moon of fruit Martin holds out to her. Rivers of juice run from the opened melon and seeds tumble out and scatter all over the tabletop.
        Mill takes a bite, chews. She says, “You hide my birth control pills?”
        “What do you think?”
        She finishes her slice, reaches out and picks up the knife. “I want more of this.”
        They eat in silence, making a bowl of the fruit, until Martin leans back in his chair and pats his stomach. “I think we’re set, huh?”
        “Cecil would be proud.”
        “We shouldn’t waste the rest, though. It’ll be rotten by morning.”
        They rise from the table, and Mill opens the back door. Night behind the Compost Heap is blue-black and afire with stars. Something rustles in the trees. Martin steps out next to Mill and heaves the rest of the melon into the glowing wilderness below.

“The North Comes for Dinner” was published in the 2013 edition of The Labletter.

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