I feel the carpet against my naked back, soft and rough. I think I’m here, in a dream, where the edges cloud to creamy nothing and I hear your voice. I think it is your voice; I can’t be certain. It is male. And I am naked on the floor. In this dream who could it be but you.
My eyes sting with tears that burn like acid. The fear in my heart is the only thing I’m able to grasp, and I see your hand– a hand coming at me, at my face. It is coming fast and at the last moment I turn my head and tuck my chin into my shoulder so as to catch the blow at my ear; it doesn’t hurt so badly. I hug myself, for comfort or to cover my nakedness, that isn’t clear either. Nothing is clear. Everything floats in mist.
“Driving a manual is like making love,” she said. She listened to the roar of the old engine, pushed in the clutch and geared up, and the truck shifted smoothly and purred.
He watched her, and cocked an eyebrow. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, you have to feel what it needs. You’re always feeling the engine, listening and responding. Like making love.”
“What do you know about that? About love making?” A gentle grin lurked behind his words. “I thought you’d never… you know. Never had.”
She braked and pulled the truck off onto the shoulder. Her cheeks were flushed, but she was naturally flushed in complexion; he couldn’t be sure what colored her face. She turned blue eyes on him, boldly, fearlessly. “Doesn’t mean I know nothing about it, Tom. Do you want to try?”
He was taken aback. He stammered a little, looking for the correct answer.
“Driving,” she amended, and then she smiled.
He nodded and exited the vehicle, wanting to hide the disappointment, and the way she aroused him. She always aroused him, and she never meant to. They’d known each other since kindergarten, and he thought he might have loved her at least that long. Maybe longer. He slid under the steering wheel and had to move the bench seat up because his legs were shorter than hers.
“Clutch in,” she directed. She was so bossy. And he always did as she said.
He looked down and stood on the clutch with his left foot. The truck started to roll.
“Brake,” she stated calmly. As though they weren’t about to roll off the mountainside. He hit the brake with his right foot. “Remember, clutch in and shift; so, clutch, and into neutral, because you’re going to have to feed her to get her going again. So you can’t be on the clutch, unless you got three feet.”
When he couldn’t quite find neutral, she put her hand over his on the stick and helped him feel it, telling him it was the middle of the ‘H.’ He wished she’d kept it there, where he could feel the little callouses on her palm against his knuckles; he swallowed hard.
They made it to the top of the hill with little drama. He ground a few gears, and stalled it out once; but she was right. It was all about feeling the engine. When he thought of it in her terms, it came quickly and easily.
He killed it at the top of his drive. “Don’t you want to go to the house?” she asked.
“Naw, I’ll walk. Thanks Mads. For the lesson.”
She smiled and stood with her ass leaned on the side panel. The wind blew her red hair into her eyes. “Have you?”
“Have I what?” As the words leapt into the space between them, he realized her meaning, and his face turned hot. He looked away, smiling. “Oh. Mads-”
“Why is it so hard for people to talk about?” She was always so earnest. She never said anything she didn’t genuinely mean.
He met her gaze. “I don’t know.” He paused. “Yeah, sure.”
Among others. “Yes, with Lydia.”
“Why’d y’all call it off, Tom?” Her directness was unforgiving. He wished he could be so direct with her. “It wasn’t working out. We weren’t…. matched.”
“Was there someone else?”
His eyes jumped back to her face, like he’d been ousted.
“I ain’t seen you around as much,” he said.
“Yeah. Been busy. Lambing. So was there? Did she cheat on you?”
He shook his head. He wasn’t going to tell her that she was the third party in his relationship. And while Lydia may not have known her competition, she’d definitely known she’d had some. “It just didn’t work out, Mads. I gotta get going.”
“You should get in some practice, before your test.”
“You free tomorrow?”
She grinned. “I think so, later. I’ll pick you up here.” Then she was inside the cab and the engine roared to life. She rooster-tailed back onto the road and waved high out the window as she disappeared.
When he forces himself inside me, I know it isn’t you. I don’t know how, but I know you would never hurt me like this. You would never rip me open and spill blood. I try to scream, but there is tape on my mouth. The soft rough carpet burns my back but I no longer feel it. I close my eyes, beyond humiliated, beyond afraid. My mind drifts, up over the furniture in the room, up through the ceiling, out over the trees. I think of the lambs. The twins, the struggling ewe who paid no mind to the living because of the dead caught within. I could see albino hooves emerged, but no pink muzzle resting between them. The ewe was weak, and I knew there was little hope. So I lifted the living lamb and carried it up the hill, to the shed, and I rubbed its snowy wool with straw until it was dry, and fed it powdered colostrum from a big bottle with a long pink rubber nipple. It bleated weakly, and laid its tiny head against my breast-
Pain shoots through me as he squeezes me in his hand, like he is trying to tear it from my body. I no longer feel him in my womb. All I feel is pain. I feel like vomiting, but I push it down, I don’t want to die here today, not like this.
He dropped his plate in the sink, and heard Mama sigh impatiently. “Tom, if you break another I’m demoting you to plastic, son.” It was time, he thought. Time to be a man, find his own place.
“Yes’m,” he said. “Sorry.”
He hated to leave her though, with Daddy gone. There were only the two cows and the chicken flock left, though, and he could come by in the spring and help with the garden. If he had his own place, his own plot of land, his own cow and chickens and sheep and garden, maybe she’d have him, Mads.
“You’re a thousand miles away, Tom. Penny for them?”
He smiled and turned the water off. He shook his head. “Just wool-gathering, I reckon.”
“How did the driving lesson go?”
“Fine. I’m not too bad at it. Not too much much different from granddad’s tractor.”
“You were just a sprout when you drove that! Barely reach the pedal.” She slopped water over the edge of the sink and caught it and pushed it back in with her hand. “How is she?”
She looked at him with hazel eyes and the creases around her mouth and eyes deepened and fanned. “You know who, silly. Mads. I ain’t seen her in ages. Not since-”
Since that. He nodded and looked away, and the air grew thick and warm with somberness.
After a moment, she spoke again. “How does she seem?”
“She seems okay, Mama. Like Mads.”
“She’s a strong girl. She’d be good for you.”
His eyes jumped to her quickly. It was unexpected, because he hid his feelings so well. She laughed and leaned her shoulder into his and motioned for him to be careful of the plate he was drying. He blushed.
“You’ve had it bad for her since grade school, Tommy. I don’t know why you don’t just tell her already.”
Because she was too good for him, that’s why. And with everything she’d been through, with her sisters and the fire, and him with nothing to offer. She could do better.
He gets off me, and I can almost pull a full breath into my bruised lungs. I hear the tinkle of his belt buckle as he fastens his trousers, and I watch a fly negotiate the carpet inches from my face. Like it is climbing mountains. He clears his throat of phlegm and nudges my thigh with the toe of his work-boot.
I don’t move. I play dead, like a fawn in a mowed field. The mower always gets the fawn, though, because it doesn’t move. It gets chewed and ground up, and then the buzzards come and clean it up. I wonder if the buzzards are waiting for me.
He met her at the top of the drive, right where they’d left one another the day before. She stepped out of the cab and left the door standing open.
He’d been waiting 15 minutes, standing in the hot sun, gathering his nerve. And when she stepped out and the wind blew and pressed her cotton tee against the contours of her breasts and belly, and swept a spiral of bright orange hair across her eyes, he felt his body lurching towards hers.
That first kiss was like something in a dream he’d had. She tasted like mowed grass smells and Dr. Pepper. And she didn’t push him away. Her back stiffened for a moment, and he put his hands on her ribcage above her waist and held her like one would hold an ostrich egg. He pressed his lips against hers, and to his surprise, they parted and he lingered there. Her hands went around his neck, and she pushed her hips against his. He pulled her closer. He knew she could feel him, feel how he grew and reached and wanted. He knew he wanted her to.
She didn’t kiss like someone who didn’t know how. She said she’d never been with anyone. But her mouth and her body responded to his in the same way she responded to everything, with a natural confidence and complete lack of self-consciousness.
He deepened the kiss, and slid one hand up to cup her breast through her clothes. It felt as perfect as they had always looked. And when she gave a soft moan into his mouth, he wanted to possess her, right here at the top of the driveway in the bright sunlight for everyone to see. But he didn’t. He pulled his mouth from hers, and hugged her tightly against him. She relaxed and returned his embrace.
“I’ve loved you for a very long time,” he whispered.
Her head nodded. He leaned back and looked into her face. “You knew?”
She was flushed. But her eyes smiled. “I suspected.”
Discomfort crept around his heart. She was returning his feelings, but not his words. Finally it had to be said, He had to know. “What about you? How do you feel, Mads?”
She took his face between her hands and leaned forward and kissed his lips, very softly. “I’ve always known you were the one for me. Tom, I’m a 27 year old virgin, what the fuck do you think I was waiting for?”
His face warmed.
“I’ve had offers.” She released him, suddenly, and walked away, around the back of the short-bed. “Drive.”
Cold steel slips between my hands, and the twine falls away. I can bring my arms down, but they are heavy and dead, so I lie still while the shadow of him steps back. He stands for a moment, and I feel his eyes though I can’t see them. He huffs deep in his throat again, like he’s clogged and having trouble breathing. He turns, and I listen to his foot falls recede, I hear a car door, an engine, the crunch of gravel, silence, stillness, utter solitude.
It’s over. And I think I’m still living, though I feel nothing but throbbing pain throughout. The mists have receded, and I want you, I need you to know where I am and that I’m needing you to come, to pick me up off the floor and dress me and keep me safe in a dark place and let me heal.
But you’re not here. You are out somewhere, living an ordinary day. And I have been forgotten, in hell.
The tiller jolted between his hands and he released the handles, killing the engine. A chill ran down his spine, sent icy fingers racing out his limbs and into his balls. A feeling that something was terribly wrong. He looked at the clear sky, the white sun, the rock that the tiller blades had just jumped over. He bent and lifted it, tossed it to the side, surveyed his progress and tried to shake the chill, the fingers.
He went into the house for a drink of water. He stood with his fingers beneath the stream, waiting on the warm water to empty and the cold to come. There was dead space around his heart, like a roaring vacuum. He thought of Mads. She was supposed to be visiting her dad today at the asylum in Jonesborough.
He swigged the water and felt the brief stab of headache at the coldness of it. He set the glass next to the sink, and returned to the garden, choosing to drown the bad feelings in sweat.
This room slowly regains focus. I don’t know how long I’ve slept, but I know it is even darker, and my skin is cold. I lie on my side like an infant. I think of the lamb, curled in the corner of the shed in a nest of clean straw, waiting for its dinner.
I sit up and my head swims. Memory begins to filter in. Not the memories of the man, or the rape, those will be my constant companion from here on. But memories of how I got here, wherever here is. I recall talking to the orderly outside the asylum. He was a large man, as they all were, tall and thick through the shoulders. He wore white scrubs and work boots. He gave me a tag and pointed the way inside.
I saw Daddy in the community room, just like every other Saturday afternoon since the fire. He hadn’t said a word since he’d been here, and today was no different. I sat next to him for an hour, his big hand, once work-roughened but now soft and weak, clasped between mine. I told him about the ewe and her twins. I told him how I was able to save one. I told him about Tom, and how we were going to be married, probably at the end of autumn, after Thanksgiving. I told him the doctor said he could come home for Thanksgiving.
I look around, and can’t find my clothes. I’m wearing only my underwear, and it has been ripped. I see that the carpet I was being burned by is a small scrap in the middle of the room; the rest of the floor is plank. The walls are lumpy, made of logs. I hear a cricket. The furniture is all draped with drop-cloth, and is sparing. Cobwebs float with dust motes through the rays of weak light that filter through cracks in the chinking.
The sun was dropping quickly, and he draped a tarp over the tiller by the garden, to keep off the dew. He would have to finish tomorrow.
The dread inside him grew deeper and darker with the lengthening shadows, and it was now focused solely on Mads. She should have been back by now. She was supposed to have supper with him and Mama. They were going to tell Mama together, about their plans.
Mama was in the kitchen, scrubbing the potatoes she’d just dug.
“Have you heard from Mads?” he asked
She looked at him, shook her head. “Should I have? You can check the phone messages, but I haven’t heard it ring.”
He did, and there was nothing. He called her house, and no one answered. “I think I should go look for her.”
She looked surprised. “Is it necessary? Maybe she had car trouble-”
“If she did, she needs my help.”
She nodded and set the potato aside, washed her hands. “I’ll drive you. We don’t need you driving around unlicensed. Let me get my purse.”
I’m relieved to find that my legs do still work. I pull a drop-cloth off a nearby side table and shake it for spiders and wrap it around me. It is colder against my skin than the air, but it’s cover, and I hold it tightly around my shoulders. The front door is apparent by the light coming in around its edges, and I go and open it, and squeeze my eyes tight against the weakening daylight. I peek through my lids, and wait to adjust.
I’m standing on the front stoop, under a tiny overhang. Two steps lead down to a leaf-strewn walk, which meanders out to a graveled parking space. I assume a driveway drops over the hill, marked from here only by the opening in the trees. Cicadas are beginning their cadent dusk song. It will be dark very quickly inside these woods.
I am barefoot. But I don’t feel the gravel as I begin to walk. I’ve stopped calling for you, because I know you can’t hear me. I am alone. My body cries and I think I can feel the bruises forming, multiplying, beneath my skin, inside me. I feel fear that you can’t – aren’t – hearing me, because after this, you’ll have no use for me. And I feel regret that I didn’t take you when I could have had you, on that sunny day, beside the truck.
They drove all the way to Jonesborough, all the way to the asylum. Tom got out at the gates and spoke to the big orderly, described Mads and asked if he’d seen her. He said that yes, she had been, but had left hours ago, before lunch. He put out a cigarette beneath the heel of his work boot as they talked. He asked Tom if he needed to go inside. Tom said no, and got back in the car.
Mama said, “Did she mention errands?”
Tom shook his head. “I think we should go to the sheriff. “
At the police station, he talked to a short, round woman whose chest fought the blue fabric of her uniform, stretching it mercilessly. She shook her head and told them to come back in 48 hours. They couldn’t file a report till the person had been missing that long.
Tom swore, something he never did, and told her they were useless, that he’d known all day something was wrong and it would be too late in 48 hours. It may be too late now. This wasn’t like Mads. He regretted his words at the pained expression on the officer’s face. He mumbled an apology and left.
They drove back toward home, both checking the ditches for sign of Mad’s red truck.
When the headlights pierce the gathering night, my first instinct is to hide, because it might be him. But I’ve been walking over an hour, having found the hardtop, but I still don’t know where I am, or which direction is home. So I step off the shoulder into the road and stand in their way, and hope this is help.
I am fortunate. For the first time today. The woman puts her arms around me and says something about the hospital, but I only want to go home. I ask if she’ll just take me home, and I give the address. She finally agrees, and says it’s only about 10 miles. I think of the irony, sitting in her passenger seat, deflecting her questions. She says something about the police.
I close my eyes, and when I open them, we are at the Jonesborough police station. A short, round lady in a tight blue shirt is asking my name.
It’s not where I want to be, but I feel safe, and I start to let go, to let the blackness back in.
I awaken, because I hear your voice. You’re talking softly to me, with your mouth beside my ear. I realize I’m being held against your body, and you’re rocking me, and I think you may be crying. I lift my arms and hold onto you, and you stop talking and strengthen your embrace before pushing back to look in my face.
I want to tell you everything, but I can’t speak. I think you must not know everything or you wouldn’t be here. I try to make words. But you speak instead.
“Do you remember anything, Mads? Do you know who did this?”
I realized there’s another person in the room, a police officer. The officer steps forward and says, “Anything you can remember, Miss Baker, would be very helpful.”
All I remember are white trousers and work boots. I say this. She asks me to retrace my steps. She says they found my truck outside the Winn-Dixie. That’s where he grabbed me, from behind, and put me into a van after putting tape on my mouth and tying my wrists. The van was dark blue, and had writing on the door, but I couldn’t read it.
The officer nodded and left. You look in my eyes again, but I’m very tired and you’re unreadable. “I want to go home, Tom.”
I want to go home with you. I don’t want to ever be away from you again.
I think you hear me. I think you’ve always heard me.