Michael Milliken lives, writes, reads and works somewhere near Portland, Maine. He is a graduate of Yale and the M.A. in Fiction Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beginnings, Better Fiction, Cellar Door and the anthologies 50 States, Riptide and Visiting Hours.
We were out. Out of the cabin, of Morristown, of Maine. We were out of the fog that had drifted around us, a stiff mist, a heavy dew. Today, the sun shone. Bird songs carried on the wind. We were out of it all and I had only to tell Beth the news.
She’d gasp with surprise in the doorway, cover her mouth and bend her knees. She’d throw her arms over my shoulders and say something terse and excited – Finally or Yes or some Whoop for lack of words. Then we’d drive into Auburn, a dinner at Rosalind’s, a few drinks to ease us to dance. How long had it been? We’d drive home in a frenzied conversation about possibility and change, each jousting to get in words, rushing our thoughts together and laughing. Yes, laughing.
I parked my jeep alongside our house, a rented, rehabbed cabin, stepped outside and shut the door. The sun was not out. I heard no birds. Arrived just a little too late. Already, the starless blue of early night seeped into the sky. Behind the old backyard maple, a large harvest moon hid, still pale, a pane of frosted glass which seemed cracked beyond the tree’s bare branches. Already, the trees balded, sent down slices of color. Already a nip of snow. But it was a beautiful evening – comfortable, at rest, somewhere the scent of ripened apple. Across the street where Beth’s sister lived, a straw-stuffed scarecrow slumped on the porch beside a carved pumpkin. Every holiday, Susan spruced up the outside of her home.
On any other day, I would have walked inside after checking across the street, slipped off my shoes and settled on the couch with the early news. But I wanted to breathe in this day, imprint its images – we were out – and so my head swung around to the neighbor’s house where I saw that Max was gone. That old beagle, forever a bit too thin, a bit too tired, had finally given in to the wear of time. Better off. He spent even the coldest nights out there, watched snowflakes build up above the arch entrance of his clapboard doghouse and box him in. The police came a few times. Beth called them once. Soon tufts of fresh hay spread out from the doghouse dark, the feed dish lay hidden beneath a pile of pellets, but soon the hay padded down, the pellets disappeared. Only a guard dog after all, only an animal to have around just in case. And now the old boy was gone.
A replacement stood before the doghouse already, a golden pup on the same short leash. Neal Flaherty’s truck was out of his driveway, so I walked through the tall pines between our homes, over the soft and scented needles and onto Flaherty’s lawn. The puppy bounded, two leaps until the leash pulled taut. I crouched down and reached out a hand. Her tail stopped, tense and alarmed as she crouched, too. Her dark eyes welled as she took small steps backward and whimpered. I held still, taking in those large eyes, some sort of fear, uncertainty behind them. So I stood up, took two steps backward and then the dog came forward again, her small tail wagging, a brightness reborn in her eyes. I stepped forward and crouched and she returned to her frightened stance, slinked back to the safety of her new home. It was strange – this march forward, then retreat – like the puppy saw the kindness I offered, the gentle touch of a warm hand, but however great her desire to trust me, to be coddled and loved, some instinct held her back. Already, Flaherty had gotten to her. I stood up again, then walked back over the pine needles, glanced over my shoulder once and saw that the dog stood as before at the end of her leash, tail wagging.
Back at the car, I took out the single red rose I’d left on the passenger seat, walked into the house where I slipped off my shoes and settled on the couch. Beth would be here in an hour.
Beth. She had arrived when I needed her most, when my independence wore down to loneliness, when novelty came forced or recycled. Beth came when my life hung unbalanced, or too balanced, when opaque forces within me gathered to a critical mass. I met her through Susan, the quiet, shy sister across the street. At the time, I knew Susan only through get-the-mail conversations and drive-by hellos. She seemed unwilling to offer more. I’d noticed, just a few times, a small bruise, heard a scream or shatter during the earliest hours of morning. So the invitation to Susan’s Labor Day barbecue – let’s celebrate the tourists’ retreat – came as a surprise. Beth arrived then, just walked into my life and brushed aside the storm that roiled within me. And though our relationship of the past year had delicate moments, it endured and grew on an honesty I’d never known.
Her car came into the driveway. Through the window, I watched Beth park, step outside and look over to Susan’s, then walk toward our house. I turned off the TV, took the wrapped red rose into my hand and stood at attention as she entered.
“I got that job and we’re moving!”
Beth stopped, held on to the half-open door. She stared at me. Expressionless. I couldn’t lift a hint of happiness from her face.
“You said you didn’t get that job.”
“I know.” I walked toward her with the single rose. “But the guy disappeared and the store’s opening in a week. Not the most glamorous way to get promoted, but it’s mine. I know it’s quick. We’ve got the weekend to go down and find a place.” I handed the rose to her. She held it to her chest. “This is much better money, benefits – the whole thing.”
Beth placed the rose on the small table beside us and walked around me. I looked down at the rose, then turned around. On the other side of the room, she stood against the wall below a framed round mirror. Her large, dark eyes welled up.
“We can’t go,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Where was the gasp, the whoop with her arms over my shoulders?
“I can’t go,” she said.
“We talked about this,” I said, heard the rise of my voice, the depth of its tone. “You said you wanted this, that you could pick up and leave without a problem. You told your boss.”
She looked away, down to the floor, pinched her nose, then put both hands behind her back.
“This is where I live. There’s Susan to consider.” She reached out one arm and pointed across the street. I shook my head. “You don’t understand. I need to be here for her…”
“Forever?” I said the word like a slur.
“Three weeks,” she said.
“Three weeks?” I walked up to her, closed the distance between us. “What do you mean three weeks?”
She looked up at me, then away again.
“You don’t understand.” She wrung her hands. “She’s leaving Tom in three weeks when he’ll be in Vermont.”
That, I knew, was where Beth’s gasp of surprise, her whoop for lack of words had gone. And I knew Susan had to get out. We all dangled ignorance, but Susan had to escape. More so than us. And despite the darkness that gathered in this room, a darkness I could taste on the air, there was room for Susan’s happiness within me.
“Then stay here for three weeks. You’re certainly not going to be around after Tom finds out.”
Her eyes lifted, locked in with my own so tight that the tears at their edges seemed slight blurs in periphery. The sense that more remained unsaid held my stance and stare firm. It was a tactic I knew to use with Beth. A tactic that worked.
“Where is she going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, Beth. Where is she going?”
“She doesn’t know.” Beth threw her hands above her head and quickly she started shouting. “You don’t understand.”
I grabbed her arms, pushed her back against the wall.
“Then tell me, Beth. Tell me how Susan’s getting to somewhere she doesn’t know.”
“A woman.” She turned her face aside, her voice falling to a whisper. “A woman will pick her up in three weeks. She’ll have a green car and a green hat. And that woman will drive her south, somewhere. And another woman will pick her up and drive her someplace else. And another. And another. And no one knows the name of the next person in the chain. All so Tom can’t Sherman March across the country to Susan.”
“But what about you? We both know Tom’ll go straight through you to find her, no matter how much or little you know.”
“I know that,” she snapped.
The quickness, the reproof in her voice was a flashlight into her mind, gave form to the darkness I’d sensed around us.
“You’re going with her,” I whispered.
My eyes widened, took in her tears. I felt my hands squeeze harder around her arms, my knee lift up and press against her thigh in case she kicked. Beth had chosen this place in the living room. If I looked forward, I’d see my reflection in the mirror above her.
“You’re hurting me,” she said.
“I’m hurting you?” She struggled, attempted to thrash her arms free.
“She can’t live like that.”
“What about me?” Furious now. “I’m a book store clerk, Beth. I – we – rent a cabin in the far corner of Morristown. Not married, no kids. What about our future?”
“You don’t know.”
“Tell me then.”
She attempted to thrash her arms again. She shook her head. I pinned each arm back up against the wall, one arm stretched out at each side of that mirror. This wasn’t me. Just a mind where the heart had left. But this wasn’t Beth either.
“She took it all, George,” Beth screamed, her voice raw, tears raw. “She took it all those years when we grew up and it’s her turn.”
“Just tell me one thing.” She turned her eyes to me, red-rimmed and swollen. My voice faded. “How were you going to do it?”
“Just a note. A note on the breakfast bar and a rose.”
I released her arms and Beth slid down the wall, hugged her knees. I reached back, closed my fist and threw it forward, hard into the mirror. Beth gasped, covered her mouth as I exhaled, heavy air through the clenched ridges of my teeth. I took the fist to my chest, held it to stop the tremble as I looked into the mirror. Though a starburst of cracks spread out from the center, the frame held the glass in, kept its form. And I was there, a distorted reflection, my fractured face in so many pieces of me. But only one choice remained.
I turned around and walked into our bedroom where I took the large black suitcase from the closet. Up on the bed, I opened it, then returned to the closet and filled that suitcase with as many shirts, pants, pair of socks as it would take. Then I zipped it up and walked out into the kitchen.
Beth hadn’t moved from that place against the wall, weighted down with so much remorse. Her head angled over her right shoulder. Her breath shallow. She watched me from the corners of dark eyes. A flush of fear, uncertainty behind them. I turned so only my back faced her and walked toward the table, lifted the rose a few inches into the air. I set the rose back down, then opened the door and closed it slowly, soundlessly behind me.
Outside, my first tears fell as I looked to the moon. It had pulled out from the old tree, now high and bright, a deep white in the sky framed with a copper aura. A moment to breathe in. I turned and looked behind me at the cabin, swung my head to the single lighted window in Susan’s house, then around through the pines to the dog. Tears everywhere in this place. I opened the back hatch of the jeep and tossed in the suitcase, saw that Flaherty was still away. As I walked through the pines, the golden puppy bounded out from the darkness of her home until the leash pulled taut, tail wagging. I stepped toward her and her tail dropped. But I kept walking until she scurried back into the doghouse. I heard her soft cries from the dark inside.
I squatted and wrapped my arms around both sides of the doghouse. It wasn’t heavy. A small dog, some old hay, thin clapboards. Her cries from inside ceased. Past the pines, I placed the doghouse in the trunk of my car, shut the hatch and sat down in the front seat. The car started, backed down the driveway and onto the road. I saw the silhouette of Susan in the window, a phone held to one ear, one open palm toward me. I turned my eyes to the road, found an oldies station on the radio, then looked up to the large, ringed moon before me.
“That’s a moon dog,” I said. “It means there’s water crystals spread across the sky. Millions of tiny shards high up reflecting the light, like moon dust. And it means there’s a storm coming, a rain shower. But we’re not staying here. No, we’re heading west, to a whole new state, heading right into that storm.”