Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (2 page)

I assumed the plan was to show her the usual spots and do the usual things. It was the first time we'd taken anyone with us, let alone a girl, and probably we wouldn't find any deer and then we'd show her our secret fort and plunk some soda cans and maybe Matthew would try to make out with her. Because although we were just kids, Matthew was a country mile further along that snaky path toward manhood than anyone else in seventh grade. Me especially.

For several weeks after his arrival in Roseborn, the major talking point for everyone in our class was that Matthew had grown up in New York City. But it wasn't only his big city upbringing that made him seem more grown up than the rest of us, he actually was more grown up, having been held back a year before moving upstate. And so being an older kid—over a year and a half
older than me—when Matthew got dropped into our class at the beginning of sixth grade, he landed with an almighty splash. It was as if a stone giant had been thrown among us, not just a street-fighting kid from Gotham but a taller, stronger, more developed creature. Matthew could easily have passed for sixteen, even eighteen maybe, and for weeks everyone was too intimidated to talk to him, this hulking brute from another world. Eventually, when I did begin to befriend him, I would realize that Matthew wasn't just factually older than me, he was light years ahead of my curve, perhaps light years ahead of everyone in Roseborn Middle School, possessed of such a single-minded fearlessness that perhaps my initial suspicion that a stone giant had been cast into sixth grade wasn't all that far off.

But, of course, this is easy to say looking back twenty-six years. At the time, Matthew just felt like an older brother to me—even more so than my actual older brother. I feared him and loved him in equal measure.

I suppose we'd never really discussed girls in any sort of making-out sense but I think Matthew had had sex already, probably more than once. If I'd asked, I'm sure he would've told me. But I didn't ask, the whole thing made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. For several months I'd seen him looking at girls in a way that would slowly become familiar to me—if I'm being honest with myself, I probably resented that.

So it didn't surprise me much when, not long after we'd trekked to our secret spot with Hannah, Matthew sent me away on my own. It's a new game, he said, called Reconnaissance. And then Matthew tried to sell it to me like I was a spy and now I'd get to sneak around and if I spotted anything, like deer or a hiker, I should report it when I returned.

Oh and Tricky, he added, just as I was leaving. Take your time, OK.

So I skulked around for thirty or forty minutes, making it as far as the trailhead for Sunset Ridge, not seeing any hikers or deer. But I did almost step on a huge black rat snake, a dark flurry whipping over the fiercely lit rock, at which point, figuring I'd been
gone long enough, I started to head back, feeling proud to be returning with something cool to report. Maybe Matthew would suggest a game of Snake Hunt and we'd go back to the spot with our entire arsenal of weapons. Also I was thinking about the look of shock on Hannah's face when, with my arms spread wide, I would hiss the word
snake,
six feet long and as thick as my arm.

Perhaps at the time it should have occurred to me that, the same as with cats, when a black snake crosses your path it's an omen. And what if I'd taken such a hint? What if I hadn't returned through the mountain laurel back to our secret spot? Then I'm certain that, twenty-six years on, my story would now be heading toward a different end. Not that I believe my being there, my being a witness, made any difference to what Matthew did that day. But certainly it changed me, changed me in such a way that the conclusion to my story now seems like an inevitability. So much so that the right ending has come to feel like my purpose.

Pushing my way through the last of the branches, I broke onto the scene and there they were, already in position. I remember being amazed at how much rope Matthew had used. It reminded me of old silent movies, the victim mouthing screams as she lies on the railroad tracks, already cocooned by the caped villain.

Matthew fired his first shot. Hannah cried out in pain. Everything was rolling now.

 

NEW YORK, 2008

His wife is already in bed.

Patrick swirls the last inch of Jim Beam in his glass, the ice barely smaller than when he poured himself the large shot. Lights off, TV on, sound off. Letterman swimming onstage in his huge suit, the monologue in mime. It looks twice as phony without any sound and he turns it off.

Now the room is lit only by the white blaze of the city. He walks his drink over to the high windows for the wide-screen view, the nebulous glow of Times Square hanging low in the sky to the north. And then Patrick's gaze pulls to the east, the Empire State Building lit up tonight like a Popsicle, its tip colored cherry and lemon.

It never gets old, he whispers.

No, but you do, Paddyboy.

One last gulp to ease him sleepward, his reset button at the end of another jobless day. Thirty-eight years old and cast out.

In the kitchen, dark beyond the city light, he cracks the fridge door to see what he's doing, ditches the ice, leaves the glass in the dishwasher and heads to the bathroom. Brushes and flosses. Swooshes the mouthwash extra long, bourbon-free, minty fresh.

When he creeps into the bedroom, his wife is asleep. Patrick undresses quietly in the dark, peels back the covers and tries to
drift down like a feather. But as he lets the mattress take the last few pounds of his flesh, it happens, the very thing he was trying to avoid. And although not unexpected, it comes out loud enough that he jumps.

His wife screams.

He spins and hits the switch on his bedside lamp. Turning back he sees her fighting the sheets, her body twisting and bucking, a sense of arms pinning her down in her shrieks.

Shh,
he says, it's me, just me. It's Patch, there's nothing wrong.

As he touches her shoulder she screams again, harder, arms scrabbling free of the bedclothes. Now he knows to be careful, she's trying to fight her way out. Only once before has it gone that far, once before when she screamed about a man holding a gun to her head, ran to the kitchen, pulled a knife from the rack and started to prowl. That night he had stayed pressed to the bedroom wall calling out to her, It's Patrick, hun, Patch, honey, holding a pillow doubled up at his chest. It had taken her five minutes to wake. Murmuring, shivering, pacing. Where am I? she said to him when she returned to the bedroom empty-handed.

He found the knife stuck in the backrest of the leather armchair, a long gash spilling fluffy white guts. He had used it that day to debone and butterfly a half leg of lamb.

And that night, the night on which she had eviscerated the armchair, Patrick's mistake had been to reach for his wife too hard. So tonight he knows he shouldn't grab, he has to whisper her loose from the dream without becoming part of it.

And now she's halfway free, legs kicking the covers.

It's Patrick,
shh,
it's Patch, just Patch.

She pushes the sleep mask onto her forehead, wincing at the lamplight.

What is it? she asks, quieter but still terrified.

It's me, honey, nothing happened.

What did I do? she says.

Nothing—he strokes her arm—you did nothing.

She flinches but doesn't recoil, her jaw rigid, her good eye wide and blinking. Nothing happened? she says. What did I say?

Nothing, he says, soothing her, shushing her.

She frowns and pulls down her sleep mask. There was a pen, she says, I lost the pen.

We'll find the pen tomorrow. There's nothing to write now.

No, the pen for the rabbits, silly, she sighs. Too much snow.

Shh,
he says, stroking her hair, go to sleep.

Don't let him hurt me, she says, pulling herself under the comforter. You promise you won't let him hurt me?

Shh,
he says,
shhhh
.

Mornings after, she remembers only the screaming, not the words. But even so he can't lie to her. Because how can Patch make a promise to his wife that he's already broken?

Go to sleep, Hannah, he says, stroking her hair.
Shhhh
.

*   *   *

THURSDAY, FIRST THING, THEY DON'T
speak of it, weaving themselves between each other's mornings, talking weekend plans when they cross. She doesn't remember and he doesn't want to remind her. Not today. Because there is something else she has forgotten but he will wait for her to bloom with the sunlight. Every new day for Hannah begins with a gradual unfolding, forty minutes of groggy, the fog of night slowly fading.

Her morning
grog,
he calls it, like living with a drunken sailor. Stumbling about, swearing at stubbed toes, spilling coffee, dropping things that bounce under the bed or skid beneath the sofa.

And then, transformed, Hannah outshines the day.

Patrick maintains the same routine, the same apartment patterns as a month ago, before he got fired.

Let go, Patch.

Sorry, Hannah. Before I got
let go
.

Once he hears no more splashing from the shower, he starts to make coffee. When he takes the mug to the bedroom she is sitting at the edge of the bed, wrapped in a towel, brushing her dark hair. And yet not dark, he supposes. Because it is bright. Hannah's hair shines like brown glass.

She smiles as he lowers the coffee, droplets of water on the
ridges of her shoulders, in the scoops of her collarbone. He likes her like this, freshly misted, free of makeup.

Hannah reaches for the eyepatch and pulls it over her head, lifting her hair up and over the elastic. Thank you, she says, adjusting the patch, a glossy black satin. For a moment it makes him think of a mussel shell. A shell cupping her absence.

Sipping her coffee, she looks up at him with her good eye.
Mmm,
she says.

Bright blue eye, dark-but-bright hair. Married for exactly four years and still she surprises him, not only with her beauty, the unique blend of her, but most of all with her presence, the improbable fact of her close to him.

Patrick pulls his hand inside his sweatshirt sleeve and dabs his wife's wet shoulders. The card is tucked behind him in his waistband. Happy anniversary, Hannah, he says, producing the envelope.

For a moment she looks disappointed, gripping the towel at her chest and accusing him with her fierce eye. And then he realizes that her look isn't disappointment in him.

It doesn't matter, he says. You can get me one later. Or, you don't have to.

Yesterday Hannah worked the crime scene of a triple homicide in Chinatown, three women gunned down in a nail salon at lunchtime, the shooter's ex and two customers. She spent the afternoon gathering the facts, trying to speak to Detective McCluskey—who always slips the best details to Hannah—filing her copy for the newspaper by five. And when she came home, she started to cry, one of the deceased three months pregnant. So is he supposed to feel hurt that Hannah didn't find a spare half hour to track down a card store and trawl through its colorful racks?

Anyway, this has become an annual tradition of sorts, her forgetting their wedding anniversary. Three times out of four. Almost quaint.

No, it's not OK, she says, sucking her lips into her mouth.

Don't worry, he says. Open it, then.

The flap is glued down only at the tip. She works her finger in and pops it up without tearing. She even saves the envelopes.

Hannah takes out the card, reads the words to herself. Closes it. Holds it to her chest.

You're so sweet, Patch, she says.

Don't tell anyone.

They already know.

She beckons him down and they kiss.

I have a dark side, he growls.

 

PATCH

Walking away from Hannah, her blood already fading to brown, I remember thinking that I had just seen my first ever dead body.

How did that make me feel, having watched a girl tied to a tree and shot forty-nine times? Flesh, blood, death?

What if it thrilled me? Oh God, what if it
thrills
me?

We ducked out through the thicket and by the time we hit the trail, I was already twenty yards behind Matthew, too dazed to keep up as we headed back to Split Rock, where we always hid our bikes. All I remember of the trek out that day is the sight of Matthew moving farther and farther ahead of me, hauling me along in his wake.

He waited for me near the bikes, standing with one foot on the rock, looking like a dad snuck off for a smoke at a church picnic. When I got close, he unslung the bag from his shoulder.

*   *   *

EVERY TIME WE HEADED UP
to the mountains, we took these two bags with us. We'd found them the summer before going through my dad's junk in the garage, old fishing bags for two-piece bamboo rods, made of camouflage-patterned canvas. Wearing them over our shoulders we felt like soldiers out on patrol.

It was Matthew's idea. He said one of the bags would be per
fect for hiding my Red Ryder BB gun, although if anyone had looked closely enough, the gun was actually an inch too long for the bag. Matthew knew this might look suspicious, so he worked out a plan in case anyone ever stopped us.

We saved up enough money and cycled thirteen miles over to New Paltz, where there was an art supply store. Matthew had been right, I could see it was perfect as soon as he showed me the carry tube made of clear plastic. We bought the tube along with some good paper to roll up inside and also a tin of pencils. The plan was that if anyone stopped us in the mountains we'd tell them we liked sketching the scenery and I'd roll down the top of my bag and show them the tube full of paper, maybe even pull out the pencils.

Well, it turned out to be an excellent plan because one time we did get stopped by an old guy who worked for the Conservancy—the same old guy who sometimes came to our school to give us talks on geology and trees, all the good stuff kids find so fascinating. He called out to us, hurrying over and pointing at the bags, Boys, boys, you know there's no fishing in the lake.

I'd already slipped the camo bag from my shoulder and was pulling at the string that cinched the opening. When the old guy got closer I began to scrunch down the canvas to show him the clear tube full of the good drawing paper. It's OK, I said, we're not fishing.

And then Matthew said, Tricky likes to sketch the lake, sir. Tricky's really good with water, it always looks like it's moving.

By now I'd pulled out the tin of pencils and started rattling them softly to keep all the attention on me, in case the dark inch of muzzle peeking out from Matthew's bag caught the Conservancy guy's eye. He seemed to be buying into our whole act, was even smiling at us like we were an unexpected pleasure, scratching at his half-white beard.

Shouldn't you be home playing Atari? he said. That's all my sister's boys ever do these days. No, sir, I prefer to draw, I said. So you like to sketch water? he said. Yessir, I said. You ever sketch Jakobskill Falls? he said. All the time, sir. Well I guess you can't
come to much harm, he said. No, sir, I said. Just remember, though, said the old guy, half turning away already, no fishing in the lake, boys. Yessir, said Matthew.

After that we'd see the old Conservancy guy occasionally. Matthew even made me sketch Jakobskill Falls and then we had to carry the drawing around with us. One time we showed him my sketch and he pretended to like it. And when he came into school to give one of his talks he seemed to deliver most of the words in the direction of Matthew and me, as if we were the only kids who cared about this stuff. I couldn't have cared less. But anyway, I suppose it was better to have the old guy on our side rather than chasing us away from the ridge. I'd say it's a fair guess we probably broke several Conservancy rules while we were up in the mountains playing our games.

*   *   *

MATTHEW REACHED INTO THE CAMO
bag, pulled out the gun and tossed it over to me. Instinctively, I caught it.

It has your fingerprints on it too, Tricky, he said.

I looked down at my hands, one curled around the stock, the other on the barrel. Of course it had my fingerprints on it, it was my damn gun. Only something about holding it right after the crime made it feel worse, as if mine were the fresher of the two sets of prints they might find.

So now we need a plan, said Matthew.

God, we always needed a plan.
We need a plan
might as well have been Matthew's mantra. We couldn't ride our bikes around aimlessly, there had to be a final objective, our time in the Swangums always having to come with a list of activities. Rifle Range, Trail Race, Lake Swim, Lone Ranger …

Plus it was always Matthew who made the damn plan.

And I was always Tonto.

Shouldn't we tell someone what happened? I said, not daring to look at him.

Are you fucking stupid? They'll put us both in jail for-
ever
.

We could tell them how we were playing a game, I said. Maybe it was all just an accident.

Matthew's tongue was slipping from one side of his mouth to the other, his eyes somewhere else. Right, he said, this is what we do. First we ditch the gun. But the lake here's too obvious, they'll dredge. And nowhere in these woods. We should cycle over to Mannaha, we'll throw it in the lake over there or bury it somewhere.

Mannaha was another one of the skylakes in the Swangums and also the name of the state park surrounding it, seven miles farther down the ridge. Sometimes we cycled over there even though it wasn't so different from our own skylake and our own stretch of the mountains but there were days when we just wanted to loosen our legs, pedal hard down a different road.

I started to feel faint, dropped the gun next to our bikes and sat down on the rock. Tipping my head back to take in some air, I was half-blinded by sunlight and as I screwed up my eyes, a dark blot passed overhead. I knew what it was right away even though I couldn't make it out properly—and in that instant, I knew exactly what it was I had to do.

Come on, Tricky, let's get going, said Matthew, pulling me up by my hands.

And then I saw it again, farther down the road. Sure enough it was a turkey vulture, wings spread wide and its body flat, as if it were sliding over plate glass. I remember back then how I used to think of those turkey vultures as the vampires of the air, their gaunt bodies cloaked in plumage, prowling the skies on the lookout for their next taste of blood.

Blinking up at the sun, I pictured one of the vultures swooping down on Hannah, the thin stalk of its neck turning its red wrinkled head and its pale beak parting her hair, just like Matthew's stick.

Hannah's split eyeball was the path of least resistance and now I could see the turkey vulture going at her, its beak dragging out strings of flesh like snapped rubber bands, gobbling up
wet dabs of brain, the vulture's hooked beak penetrating her over and over …

Dammit, I was only twelve, this doesn't have to mean anything. I had already failed to do the right thing. You think I haven't regretted that ever since? I've waited my whole life for a chance to make amends. And at least in that moment twenty-six years ago, thinking about Hannah and the turkey vulture, I finally acted. Isn't that what matters most of all?

We have to cut her down, I yelled at Matthew, and we have to bring her back and we have to tell someone what happened.

Matthew's muscles tensed but for once I acted faster than him, turning side on, dropping my shoulder and charging, my speed and weight tackling him square in the chest. He went flying back, the air punching out of him as he landed on the road. And then I broke into a sprint.

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