Surrounded By Melissa Fraterrigo

When she hears the sirens slipping off the trees, thin-necked siphons that can’t hold tight to any sound, Luann moves over to the window by the sink. Panic that’s been there for some time runs free and she lets it. Doesn’t tap it down. Luann sees everything she needs clear up inside her head. She feels the police cars jostle over the bridge and then accelerate to make the rise toward the abandoned hunting cabin where she and Footer have been living the better part of the past year. Farther out is that empty expanse of land that if you look real close still stabbed of corn. Just beyond is the hill where Footer took the boy—Jeremiah.

It’s late morning and Glory Days is only open half day now that school is back in session. If Luann listens hard she can hear them running tests on the rides. They let the coasters pass by with empty cars to smooth the dew on the track and clear it of nighttime debris. Both she and Footer are supposed to work that afternoon, she thinks, but she knows they won’t be going.

The scavenger hunt had been Footer’s idea, but Jeremiah would have screamed or made some ruckus if she hadn’t nodded and given him a small nod when she transferred Jeremiah’s hand from hers to Footer’s. She watched them take to the hill, feet slip slopping on old leaves and broken branches. Together they scrambled up the incline. Jeremiah twisted to look at her one last time. Eyes the color of walnuts. She kept sight on the boy until he disappeared.

On the TV his mother says Jeremiah likes Matchbox cars and dreams of becoming a firefighter, like his uncle. His father says they’d just like their little boy to come home.

Luann and Footer had been snatching kids from the park all summer. They only took them away for a few hours and never meant any harm. Footer would be all hopped up in advance explaining how what they were doing would make the world a better place. It’s a small world after all, it’s a small world, he sang, hands curled in a heap below his chin.

“Think how happy folks will be to get them back. Think of them hugs, Luann. The biggest hug you ever imagined. Afterward these kids are gonna be savored like pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving table.”

In those days Luann was easily persuaded. So they made a commotion near the kiddie ride, then skirted a child away. They hung out in one of the old storage areas at the back of the park for a few hours; gave a kid all the suckers he wanted and then stuffed him in a locker. Most of them were too frightened to do anything but cry. But Jeremiah was different. He bit Footer when he hoisted him up into the locker. And then Footer tossed him against a rack of empty shelves. Jeremiah fell into a jumbled heap and it reminded Luann of that one time, the time years before now—arms and legs knocking inside her at night, how she could cup the bend of a foot or trace the outline of an elbow beneath the skin of her stomach.

Luann rushed to Jeremiah, scooped him onto her lap, and rocked him. He didn’t cry. He wore a dazed expression. “Come on!” Footer motioned excitedly for the door. Jeremiah had broken the skin on Footer’s hand and Footer alternated putting that part of himself in his mouth to suck the trickle of blood. “We’re going on a scavenger hunt.” This was news to Luann but she didn’t question Footer. She helped the boy stand and took his hand.

Luann wishes things had gone differently. She didn’t say anything to Footer when he came back from the other side of the hill alone. He would just give her something to dull her nerves. But the boy. Jeremiah. What they did was a mistake.

 

Inside the cabin Luann smells the earth’s fallowness. Though the cows are long gone and nobody makes a living off the land anymore, fall once meant work. She knows her dad, Teensy, would be aware of the same thing. This time of year the cows needed to be weighed, each one stuffed inside the squeeze chute where they poured over the parasite control, vaccinated the calves, and pregnancy checked the heifers. And when her legs were about to fall off from exhaustion, they would sample the soil and then frost seed the clover.

Luann and Teensy are not speaking again although the hunting cabin where she and Footer live is a mile from Teeny’s house. Her grandmother has been gone nearly two years now and their cows were long ago sold off, but the ground remains rutted by their hooves. The last time she saw Teensy he stood at the door of the cabin with two plastic grocery bags bulging with canned vegetables and crackers and when she spotted the rind of an orange she nearly wept. Footer had shoved her aside and spoke all cheery, taking the bags, “Welcome, Teensy!” Luann’s stomach was pronounced then and Teensy’s gaze moved right through her and settled on it. He stood there holding his cap, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, watching her while Footer unpacked the groceries. Footer jabbered on in his way and when he left to get wood for the stove Teensy fixated on her stomach and asked her what she was going do.

“Don’t matter. Footer says there’s no heartbeat.”

“Have you been to a doctor?” Teensy asked.

“Haven’t had time,” she mumbled. Turned over a can of pork and beans in her hands just to have something to do.

“I could take care of it,” he said. “I’d do just fine. Know I would.”

She shook her head. “Can’t care for something that isn’t alive just because you wish it to be.”

“Let me take you to the doctor in Streatmore,” he said. “No one needs to know.” And before she knew what was happening Teensy crouched down, turned his face to the side, and pressed it against her stomach. She tried to push him away but he held her hips. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d been touched by him and she felt both drawn to his familiarity and frayed by the ghosts those hands had touched.

“Leave off!” she yelled, not altogether meaning it.

Footer came in then, his arms full of wood. He dropped the load and told Teensy to let her go. He shook him by his shoulders like a sack of meal. “Get out of here, man. Just go.”

In between then and now there has been lots of time to think about what might have been if she’d let Teensy take her to Streatmore or follow him down some new road away from here. Seeing part of her alive in someone else. Anything would have been worth that.

She regrets all of it. Can think clearly enough to say it. She hates Footer for making her give her boy away like a pair of overused shoes. Luann hates Footer’s pills and excuses and can’t even stand the warped way he speaks. They were all lies. Everything from his mouth is a lie.

smallworld

The sirens are more distinct now and Luann splits the blinds, peers out, and then Footer comes up out of nowhere and slaps her hand away. “You want to announce to the world we’re here? We’re gonna stay put, wait for it to blow over. They don’t know nothing. Just got to wait them out.” He squeezes her chin, kisses her mouth. She doesn’t feel anything. He pours cereal into a bowl but they are out of milk, so he uses water from the tap. His hands tremble as he lifts the spoon. Not yet noon and he already has that jittery look.

Footer’s eyes skate back and forth beneath heavy brows. He holds the bowl close to his mouth, scoops cereal faster. He misses and a flake sticks to his cheek, another sops to the floor. Luann turns, takes the few steps to the room where they slept. She needs to dress. Her heart beats fast, but her mind has a blank calmness to it. She strips off her bedclothes and looks at herself in a bit of mirror she found in a dresser drawer. She traces the line that cuts across the top of her underwear. She has lost the desire to eat, but her belly remains gummy soft. The extra pouch of skin at her middle is gathered like a drawstring purse. Somewhere there is a boy. Her son. He doesn’t know anything about Luann. She is just a name on a piece of paper. Luann grazes the scar. It is a comfort to have it right there.

Luann puts on clean underwear and jeans, a shirt that covers her elbows. She feels better once most of her skin is secreted. In the bathroom she squeezes the rest of the toothpaste onto her brush and cleans her mouth as if it’s any other day. The sirens fill the cabin but the sun is so bright behind the drawn blinds that she can’t see the flashing lights, although she knows they’re coming. Just like she knew the abducted boy’s name was Jeremiah and that he had a spate of freckles across his cheeks and nose. Fair skinned and redheaded he had a younger sister and in all the televised conferences she held a rag doll, the kind that’s pillow soft with yarn hair and painted-on features. The kind you don’t see much anymore. Footer makes her turn it off if the family comes on TV. “Why you watching that junk, Luann? It’s not good for you. You know that.”

Then he’d tell her to come over to where he lounged, and he’d motion with a hand for her to turn around. Sometimes he’d have her lift her shirt and push her bra up, ask for her to bounce like a cheerleader and make them jiggle. It always brought a goofy smile to his face. He’d give her a sloppy kiss, something that made a smacking sound and left a wet spot. Soon after he’d pass out with a little grin on his face. But while he slept it off she turned the tube back on, dragged a chair in front of the screen and stared at photos of Jeremiah’s parents, his sister. The puffed slacken look of his mother’s face. Luann feels the scar rub up against the band of her jeans and she knows she wears the same stricken look. Even though it has been more than a year, she knows she’ll wear that look the rest of her life.

Footer sits at the table in front of the toaster trimming his eyebrows with a pair of toenail clippers. The sirens are so loud the place nearly vibrates. They are parked outside, she is sure of it. Her throat goes dry, hands and armpits sweaty.

Luann had been the one to make the call to the police at the MiniMart payphone. She hiked out in the earliest of hours that morning beneath a cavern of stars; leaves crunched underfoot, nothing but blackness all around her, the river low but its stench rich. Everything was drying, dropping, fading away. She wasn’t used to being alone at that hour in the woods, and it blazed up in her a remembering for how the thistle and alfalfa would go grey with the first frost. Heads on the clover would shrivel and droop, but in the morning steam would rise from the ground and the dew-stained grass and the breath of each cow would be visible. In autumn Teensy would shake her awake before dawn. Sometimes he would place a hand on her shoulder, other times he’d stand in the doorway for a few moments before calling her name, saying it was time to get up and that there was work to do.

Truth is she woke as soon as he opened the door to her room. She kept steady. Luann never saw Teensy’s face during these moments but she knew he was memorizing her, gathering her up like she was his everything. Just thinking about it again makes her want to run home to Teensy and bury her head in his arms and apologize. Tell him what she has yet to speak of—the bright hospital lights raining down, blinding her, the rip roaring pain of each contraction—how the nurses held her firm, shot her looks of disgust. They’d given her something to deaden everything below her waist but she’d still felt some tugging and turning as they pulled him from her body. His cry boomed off the tiled walls, filling everything with the pureness of that sound and then they’d whisked him away. For weeks afterward her breasts wept with milk whether or not she thought of him.

The car doors open, footsteps are on the porch. She places a hand on the wall. Luann glimpses shadows on the other side of the blinds and braces herself.

 

 

 

Fraterrigo’s fiction current appears in storySouth, Shenandoah, Notre Dame Review, and Sou’wester. She is also the author of The Longest Pregnancy, published by Livingston Press and awarded the Tartt Short Fiction Award. Fraterrigo recently completed a novel-in-stories, and one of the stories from this book was selected from more than four hundred for inclusion in American Fiction Volume 14, published by New Rivers Press and set for release in October 2015. At present she teaches writing at the Lafayette Writers’ Studio.