Every morning Andrew fetches her breakfast. This is just a recent thing, as I’ve seen him reading in a book that it is vital to treat your woman kind. Something special at least every day, a little surprise to keep everyone on his or her toes. So for Deb especially, he treks down the mountain in the early hours, when dawn is on the brim, all violet, and he hits up the diner that is like a half mile east, maybe less, called Cassidy’s. Cassidy doesn’t work there anymore, she’s since passed, but new customers always ask. I haven’t been let down to Cassidy’s in a bit. I remember they had nice red booths with glitter in the vinyl or something that made them sparkle.
I stay put in our tent with Deb. I stay put and Andrew goes “hunting.” I am fully aware that this is the way it’s been done between man and woman for eons now, and my mom used to say there’s no need to fix what hasn’t broke.
Deb prefers eggs, scrambled, and toast cut into triangles with butter pats and grape jelly on top. It takes Andrew a full hour at least to get all the way down the mountain and all the way east to Cassidy’s, so by the time he is back, the food’s gone cold. The first day of this new routine, Deb sticks her knuckle in the egg pile and gets pissy about it, flat out refuses it, so I vulture her leftovers since I’m hungry but also dying for a non-jerky-like texture to work my jaws.
Deb realizes pretty quick that being a priss about perfectly fine food was going to get her nothing but a growling stomach, so she starts to welcome the cold eggs and toast with pleasure, showing Andrew her gratitude with a face-splitting smile and head nodding and earnest moans.
Mostly Andrew and I measure between us survival foods in eensy, weensy portions, like hardtack and jerky and all that. Before life was this eternal campout, before we hid from people and flipped our shit at even just a twig-snap underfoot, Andrew stocked up good, made sure what we had was portable and indestructible and could get us around well enough. My big part in this was stealing a dehydrator from a store in the shopping center, next to a salon, a home goods store I guess you’d call it. They sold crockpots and spatulas, too, ceramic creamers, oven mitts, and other bougie stuff. It was the dead end of winter and I had Andrew’s black puffer coat, which goes way down to the knees, and besides that I was five months along and a pregnant belly/a dehydrator stuffed under your shirt don’t look too dissimilar, as it happens. We filled the thing with muscly strips of deer and rabbit and other stuff that Andrew killed and I skinned. We let the vent whir, and we watched as some force slowly sucked on the meat until it went brown and twisty. We planned, planned, and planned, just the two of us.
I’m not pregnant anymore, so I can take some hardship. Deb gets special treatment because she is the youngest, Andrew explains. But I believe it is also because she has beautiful hair. Gorgeous, like just really stunning. These crazy springing curls that don’t get matted and greasy like mine, but fall long down her back, so bleached white by the sun you could mistake her for albino if she didn’t tan so good. Skin burnt sauce-red, peeling off in pretty strips then turning so thoroughly golden that her white teeth and eyeballs and hair stand out more. She shines even now in the morning half-light as she nibbles daintily on a point of bread. Andrew likes her so much because she is undeniable. I am ruddy, broad. I grow fur.
He used to watch her from across the street. Once he took me, too, to see her for myself. We parked around the corner behind a hedgerow, just out of sight, as she paraded around her front lawn. She had one of those kinds of batons, you know, with a sparkly blue wand and a length of ribbon coming out the top of it? She was a limber little gymnast, did cartwheels and tumbles down the sloping garden, stretching her body into a lanky X-shape. Andrew leaned out the truck’s driver side window and stuck out his first finger, the one I suck on like a cigarette candy, and he pointed at Deb on the lawn and very taken with her he said, “Well! Perfect for the Beautees.”
When Andrew is feeling really great he talks about our group, a singing group called Andy Durrell (accent on the –rell) and the Bellevonia Beautees. Durrell was his mother’s maiden name, and naturally Deb and I are the eponymous Beautees. Deb does her dancing and flopping around, and I have a beautiful singing voice. (This is not just a humble opinion of mine; people have actually said this to me. In the eleventh grade I got my own choral solo, a song called “Somewhere That’s Green.”) I want to make us swishy, lovely Lycra things to wear that really show off our figures, paint our lips and nails neon orange, wear white platform shoes. I wonder if it would be wise for me to get a blonde wig, or if a wig would be made to look wiggier in comparison to the startling authenticity that is Deb’s hair.
She will shake and gambol around when I request of her some grandstanding, but there’s no life in it anymore, even when I pinch behind her knee. Of course though she’ll do anything Andrew asks, because she’s learned that Andrew can be awful when he doesn’t get things he asks, and he even bites. Which is funny, because weren’t his first words to Deb, “Don’t worry, I don’t bite?”
His first to me were, “I never do this…” while he plucked a wayward bit of leaf from behind my ear like a magic coin. I promptly became a puddle of mush on the park bench. I still go warm and puddly down to my oats to think of it. Mom said the Beatles said that love’s a long and winding road.
“Today we need to pick up again,” Andrew says as he crouches next to Deb’s platter, nickels and quarters from Cassidy’s tinkling out of his pocket, beef strip wadded in his cheek.
I say, “All right.”
I do not say, “Oh fuck me Jesus.” These pickups are always a bitch. They happen when Andrew is being a careless jackass, leaving a trace, maybe a Marlboro butt covered in curlicues of DNA, or stumbling across a hiker on his way down the mountain. Deb’s picture is still all around town. Stapled to posts and hanging on a corkboard in the post office.
A couple days ago when he hoofed it back up to the tent he had one crumpled up his shirtsleeve. He flattened it over a rock: a shuddery black-and-white scan, a school picture, her hands lain primly on her skirt, her spectacular hair bound by a scrunchie, and eyes like cereal bowls, rimmed with black copy machine ink and thus made extra haunting. He showed it to her. “See, people are still looking for you, Debbie.”
She didn’t cry like he wanted. She zipped her lip.
But I said, “Hey, I’m going to pee,” and I went far, far off. I folded myself into the hole of an oak and thought of Mom pulling a bristle brush through my hair, snarls of it in a black spider pile, sink filling with it. “Goddamn,” she’d say through the pins in her teeth, “Monster baby, you are too too.” Her spoonish hands wrangling a scrunchie and tying my bangs back like theater curtains, humming, “There we are. Tada! Prettiest things in Bellevonia.”
Hunched in the tree, head full of her, I winced out a measly tear. But that was it. I was all out.
Mom would say there’s no time like the present, and there’s no point in bitching about the picking up, so I might as well get to getting to. I pack up all our shit and push it back into our backpacks, squishing in trousers and hankies and sheets and the book about treating your woman kind until all the air’s been squeezed out and every cranny’s been used with utmost efficiency.
We go for miles. Too many more of his fuckups and these pickups and we’ll have to eschew the mountain, the forest, flee Bellevonia for good. The whole way Andrew squints into the horizon and struts along with his walking stick, a crooked tree branch worn smooth, while I lug our things on my back. Andrew has the generator in one hand and in the other, tin cups and water bottles latched on carabiners that clink together to a metallic beat. When for some mystical reason he feels the new spot is the new spot, I set down my heavy load. But! I still have the enviable task of resetting up the tent. Having done this a handful of times I’ve nearly gotten the hang of it, nailing stakes into earth scorched by summer, rude and crumbly, maneuvering plastic poles just right while Deb snorts into her hand to hide her laughter, help that she is, while I figure shit out, finagling apelike.
“We’re running out of food,” I tell Andrew when I eyeball the rations. “We’ll have to go into town. Maybe I should go if I’m less recognizable? Innocent damsel and all that? Bat my eyes?”
I bat my eyes for him as an example.
“No,” he says.
“We got your coat in the sack. I’ll slip in and shove some ramen up there, none the wiser.”
“Sure, and it won’t be at all suspicious, you wearing a big fuck-off coat in August, huh? Think I’m a lunk? Not letting you out so easy, baby.”
Is it August already?
I’m picking jerky crumbs from the slats in the dehydrator trays when Deb comes taps me on the shoulder and shoves a pillowcase in my face—the Beautee getup to make do before we get our hands on a decent ream of Lycra. It’s show time. We wiggle out of our clothes and hike up the pillowcases, slit through the top, under our pits. Deb shows her back to me and gathers her curls over her shoulder as I knot the top of the case behind her back. “Too tight!” she squeaks. “Too bad,” I say. He likes it tight.
“While the sun’s shining, babies!” Andrew calls from the tent. He slaps a spatula against a metal pail and kicks out a four-four beat. “And a one, and a two,” and “Oh, the shark, babe! Has such teeth, dear! And it shows them! Pearly white!”
We go about it: arm out, arm out, shake the rump. Leg out, leg out, thrust for three. Head jerk slide, head jerk kick, jumping jack and box step. Deb’s feet are dragging as we shuffle up the dust. I whisper the time signature, but she doesn’t seem to hear me.
“Just a jackknife!” (We do the ooohs.) “Has old MacHeath, babe.” (Ah-ooh.)
“And he keeps it!” (La-daa) “Out of sight!”
Deb is huffy and puffy and keeps withering flat, so I pinch her. She quiets then, only mouths along as I get us bright and go-going. I get loud and loud and loud, I ripple through the crab grass. I shake the cliff. Let them hear me, let everybody hear.
Andrew cranes his ear against Deb’s mouth as her lips flap away in soundless O-shapes. He looks at me. I shrug and try to sing on, but he clenches his hand over my mouth and urges Deb, “Sing.” I hold his hand against my face as he moves with me, jumping, spiraling, while Deb stumbles in my shadow. He bares his teeth at her. Under his hand, I bare mine too. She goes, “Ooh, ooh.” He points to the sun, and she shrieks the ooh’s piercing shrill, like the green warblers that skitter around in the treetops, praying to mate. Finally, finally, he beams with satisfaction and he gives her the look, that good look that filled my belly up, that look he used to save for me. The eyes that say, “God.” The mouth that curls, “Rest.” He ushers Deb into the tent and I pick a squat to cop way further off, as far as I can get so as to not hear them but also still see the sunset. This sun is small and bloody but it sets fire to the skinny clouds, the whole sky, as it dips behind a stretch of spiky trees that eat it right up.
The next morning I expect to find him gone, as he’s usually headed off to the diner by wakeup time, but then I remember that we are not where we once were, and that it’s entirely possible the days of Cassidy’s are behind us. I look over and see that Andrew is still dead asleep in his sleeping bag, a chunk of Deb’s hair splayed snoozily over his shoulder. She’s snoring to wake the devil, as usual. I turn to face the other side and slip my hands in prayer position under my ear, listening to warblers’ chirps as I settle back to sleep. I’m not one to sniff at a lazy morning.
When I wake again it’s to the smell of baked beans. I think, Does my nose deceive me? I think, Oh Heavenly Father.
Andrew is a respectable few feet from the tent, a small fire blazing. And yes, he is heating a tin of beans, lid stabbed open, over its flame.
I cry, “Who died and made me bean queen?”
He says, “It’s a good day, baby.”
Deb has already tucked into a can of her very own, and gravy dribbles out the corners of her mouth onto her knee, which she scrapes with her finger and licks clean.
“What d’you say we really hunker down in the lap of luxury today, baby?”
“Come again?” I look behind both sides of me in a mock who, me? sort of gesture, but also I am genuinely befuddled.
“Let’s get a room at the motel. I scoped it out earlier, just under two miles south and a little west.”
“And a TV!” Deb squeals.
“And a TV, and a toilet with a seat and flusher.”
“A porcelain throne for the queen of the beans.”
“If you say so.”
“How’d you find time to treat your woman so good? Women.”
“I’ve got ways, baby, wicked and wonderful.”
“That you do.”
The first taste of real hot hydrated food in, what, weeks? I lower to my knees and let myself fall back on my butt, the wolf invited to the feast.
Something I said got through to him after all. I am less recognizable than him. For that reason he makes me put the room down, for one, under a fake name, so he and Deb can sneak through a side door down a ways while I distract the guy up front with some grab bag story about my ex-husband finally signing those gosh darn divorce papers and hell if I’m not taking to the road, destination anywhere, destination I don’t care.
This guy has a creamy bread face and he keeps picking at a thing of whiteheads on his chin, says, “You gotta be too young to be divorced,” but he seems to enjoy the show anyway.
After a couple of minutes of that garbage I take the key from him and waggle my fingers, TTFN, thanks a billion!
I scurry down the hall to our room where Andrew and Deb are crouched in wait, shushing each other schoolgirlishly. Quietly, mouse quiet, I unlock the door, creak it open ever so slowly, and let them scamper in as I shut it behind us, just whisper it ever so gently into the jamb.
“Okay now, shh shh shh!” I scold them. Deb is going hog wild, jumping like nuts on the mattress, reaching her hands to the ceiling and lifting her face to the light like a plant. Even Andrew acts playful, grabbing her round the waist and twirling her from corner to corner and back again.
I quickly draw the curtains and insist that they shut up. I can’t believe I’m the one playing zookeeper.
As we settle into our temporary surroundings, sweetly remembered civilities float to the surface. Andrew switches on the TV, which briefly fizzes then fades into a program about how to make a yogurt parfait festive. He flips around, offering glimpses of shows about chimps, and one with an antique lamp the camera circles like a sexy dripping jewel, and a woman in sepia overwhelmed by Tupperware. Deb curls against the yellow pillow with her chin hooked on her knees, potato bug in repose.
Over the course of the afternoon Andrew reveals more goodies. Bananas, green with tough peels but sweet and good, and some crunchy pieces of baguette, like where are we, France?
I call dibs on the bathroom, check myself out in the mirror. Hair knotted into ropes, teeth gapped, cheeks sunk, yes, scabbed, yes, but not nearly so bad as I thought. I take myself a long, hot shower. The grout in the tile is pink and black with various molds but I don’t mind a tit. The water steams around me in a dream, fogging up the glass, on which I draw a fat heart with my finger. Comb my nails through my hair and rake my scalp, prickle and wriggle with pleasure at the feeling. Breathe in heat, hard, wet, warm, slick, clean, scrubbed, enveloped and unraveled, pulled out like a loose red thread.
It almost pains me to turn off the faucet, but Deb knocks on the door and begs to do a number two. I sigh as I pick up a towel, rough and strangely stained but still a godsend, and tousle it through my hair, wrap it all up on top of my head like a shampoo commercial.
I open the door and the cold air goosepimples my uncovered places. Steam billows out in big puffs.
Jeez, says Deb, and shuts the door behind her. She turns on the water in the sink, I assume so we won’t hear the business of her shitting.
I collapse on the bed beside Andrew. “Really,” I turn to him, “how’d you manage—?”
He gives me the most winning smile that pins up the corners of his mouth and cuts a dashing dimple in his cheek, a dimple I’d die to swim in, eyes upturned like U’s the wrong way around. He reaches out his palm, dry and strong and cool, and cups my cheek. I fall into it and rest like I’m rooted there.
The weather pops on, the week’s forecast, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, all ninety or higher, so signified with smiley cartoon suns. So that’s August 8, 9, etc., I deduce. Mom’s birthday would’ve been Friday. Then the news, an anchor duo, and an announcement, “No updates on the disappearance of nine-year-old Deborah Hershey—“
I yank the towel from atop my head. Frenzy of footage of her parents, her mom a trembling Jell-O, her daddy on the rack, tears by the bucketful, phone number flashing across the bottom of the screen, cut to an enormous slab of a man sweating in his uniform, shaking his jowls into a microphone. I grab for the remote to turn it off, but Andrew snatches it back from me.
“Deb!” he yelps excitedly. “Deb, come out here, you gotta see this! Deb!”
He leaps up and dashes to the bathroom, rips open the door. Deb screams and yells “Hey!”
He pulls her to her feet and drags her out. She’s naked from the waist down and covers herself modestly as if we haven’t seen it already. She trips over her shorts, tangled around her ankles as Andrew circles her whole neck with his one hand and sits her in front of the TV screen.
“Would you look at that.”
The same footage over and over again, in a frantic loop, of the police chief and Deb’s parents, agape in their sorrow.
Deb contemplates the imagery. She steps out of her shorts and dirty panties and shuffles slowly to the screen, resting her fingers on top of the box and gazing intently, so close up that the images are just blocks of color, red sweater and beige house, green lawn, black shirt, red and beige, green, black, and back again.
“See that, honey?” says Andrew, placing her into his lap at the foot of the bed. “They’re looking for you. They’re missing you something so fierce. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that something wonderful to see? Isn’t it?”
All one had to do was think, and squint, and shake one’s head around and get a little something in one’s eye, and it could look like it could be a bit like maybe those two at the foot of the bed, watching a show, could be a new family, and me too, the stern but loving head of it, a mom that combs her fingers through their hair in their sleep, shedding light and beauty, imparting incredible lessons as the fire spits on another magical evening. I try to see it, to see forever. The backs of my eyes are hot and ache with the trying.
Andrew regards me. I nod back yes, Andrew, yes it is wonderful.
Deb is snoring into the crusty quilts she piled around her in a polyester mound, purring and so still.
“Time to pick up again tomorrow,” Andrew whispers, and flaps the map, explaining to me, “We’ll have to continue north, out of Bellevonia totally, likely…” he points to a tree-colored clump about an inch long in a county I do not know.“Plenty of places to not be found there, yeah? After all, search for Deb still being on, leaving Bellevonia’d probably be for the best.
“No more Beautees?”
“Nah nah, drop the Bellevonia, keep the Beautees, till we’re someplace no one’s ever known us. Then”—he makes his hand an exploding star. “For now we got to practice, practice, practice. No good rusting.”
That night I have one dream, a small one, about drinking a bowl of milk and getting a nosebleed and bleeding out my nose into the bowl. Otherwise I don’t sleep a wink. Come morning my teeth are sore with heavy thinking.
I get up before them again, dig the bags out of the closet, and get to getting to. I fish around in Andrew’s jean pockets and pick out a handful of quarters, stack them up in a pretty column on the tile floor, lay my clothes out on the brown grout. Looks like my body’s melted and left them behind, or like I’ve been raptured up by the Big Man, or summoned somewhere I won’t be needing them.
Step into the shower stall naked as the day I was born, but don’t turn it on. Don’t want to wake them. Shake my hair out and let it tickle my shoulders, so fresh and nice-smelling, not matted or greasy, and I rake my fingers through it, smiling into the showerhead as if I intend to offer it my swan song. I picture forceful beads falling to my feet, torrential deafenings in my ear. Must get to getting to.
I haul our shit out to the parking lot, alone. The quarters sweat in my palm, and the phone booth smells like copper, and two quarters clink brightly in the slot, and I think of the numbers. I see them bright red and wriggling in my fingers. The fingers hook into the corresponding holes, one long drag and two quick clicks and the woman at the other end asks what is my emergency and whittles my heart down to a splinter. The sun is just a sliver. The clouds have fish gray bellies, considering rain.
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.