Mar/Apr 2019 KR OnlineFiction |

Ecstasy

It was a confluence of events, a torrent, a river: small tragedies, one after another, starting when Gina lost her position at the veterinarian, followed by her subsequent move home, a humiliation at thirty, and then her father’s back. Now that he could hardly walk, her mother often had to help him dress, hold him steady while he went hunch-backed down the stairs, even feed him in bed sometimes. Then there was the tree. The big poplar next door was visibly dying. Three weeks after Gina moved home, an enormous limb fell into the front yard. A clear, blue day in late June, and boom. The ground shook. Branches filled the yard, darkening the windows. It was as if they’d just moved into a tree house. When the man came to clear the debris, a bee zipped from the ground and stung his lip.

Gina’s parents, Coy and Lynette Delacorte, had been forced to hire the tree man themselves, since the limb had fallen into their yard, not the Toomeys’ yard. The Toomeys, the odd, rambling Toomeys. With a camper in their backyard and a sorry row of faded floor mats hanging over their back fence. According to the law, the falling limb was considered an act of God. A fine blessing for the Toomeys, whose house was now under foreclosure, but a curse for the Delacortes, who had their own share of misery.

So it went. June became July, and then August, the usual furnace. Hurricane weather. Nights, Gina sat upstairs in her old bedroom with the high school yearbooks on her closet shelf, wondering what had become of her life. She could hear her parents down the hall speaking in low tones. Prop me up on that pillow, will you? Go check the thermostat. Sometimes, despite the heat, she opened her windows and leaned out to hear distant music. Drums, a guitar. It was the loneliest sound, yet sexy. She lay on her bed and felt her belongings (her actual belongings, not her old childhood stuff) moldering in her parents’ garage. She tried to remember what was out there, tried to picture what her apartment used to contain. Gone the potted cacti, gone the kitchen décor. The rug from the Pottery Barn sour now, a cat having slipped into the garage and peed. And the cardboard boxes filled with books and pots and pans: limp, caving in. Soon enough her mother would call for help. Your dad has to use the bathroom! It was all so pitiful that, some evenings after supper, her dad having been fed his tray, she was tempted to just play games on her phone and drink. But she did not. Instead, unbeknownst to everyone, especially her parents, she took molly.

Molly, molly. What a pretty name. The first time someone asked her if she wanted to do molly, she didn’t know what they meant. Do molly? She pictured something soft and small, like a doughnut hole. Or rather she pictured turning into something soft and small, floating and fluffy. “Molly, you know, ecstasy, the love drug.” All you had to do was open the capsule, pour out the drug, draw it in a line, and snort. Or just swallow, you could do that, too. Gina felt a flash of doubt—she would be jumping into oblivion—but she said Of course, let’s do molly. The music swelled, the crowd was thick and happy. They were at a dance party, and she was made new.

A few days ago, she was able to get some, thanks to a connection. She shouldn’t have, but she did. Because who does molly alone? With no dancing, no lights, no one to share it with. But what do you do when you’re home alone with your mom and dad and you’re thirty years old with no hope? A life, she didn’t want her parents to know, that had pretty much been ruined. So it would be MDMA, molly, the therapy drug. It was all she had left. She put in her earbuds, laid down the drug, and let the music fill her brain. Off she went.

 

Down the hall, in view of the windows in Coy Delacorte’s bedroom, the moon was rising. He could see it from his bed, a chipped pearl of a moon, a waxing gibbous. This was the sort of thing he took note of. In the mornings before his back injury he liked to step outside to get the paper and take time to look for the moon, faint and receding, in the empty sky. A sign of time’s flow, sun and moon, one and then the other. Lines from the Daily Evening Prayer came to him—Thine is the day, O God, thine also the night; thou has established the moon and the sun. He could afford to feel prayerful back then, when he didn’t have a slipped disk. He could look up at the white shadow of a morning moon and feel grateful. He had an open spot in his heart, room to spare in mind and body. Now all he wanted was to roll over in bed without pain, to rise out of bed and get dressed, mindlessly. To go outside and mow the grass, to sweat! Maybe even go for a run in the August heat.

He was too much of an old seminary student not to hear scripture, even now.  Passages floated in his brain like smoke in a sanctuary. My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness. He was weak, yes, but then there was Gina. In June she’d arrived home, disheveled and jittery, rolling in behind the wheel of her faded pickup. She opened the door and looked up at him with wet eyes. “Hey, Dad.”  He watched her get out. Sauce-stained T-shirt, dirty feet in flip-flops, toenails painted black. He went in for a hug, to which she let out a dramatic sigh, drooping beneath a cloud of defeat. “This is it,” she said, “I’m back.”

Even then he knew this would be a scene he wouldn’t be able to forget, one of those moments that stick with you forever, like the day when he was a teenager and he came home from a summer overseas, and his mom told him she’d been diagnosed with cancer while he was gone, and he looked at her standing there, her lip trembling, her voice cracking, and he hoped she wouldn’t cry. But she did, she started crying, and then she sobbed. “I might . . . die.”  Except this was Gina standing in front of him now, his baby, his only girl. She didn’t have cancer, but she wasn’t fully well. She looked frail and diminished. Her skin had broken out with acne, and her hair was so tangled that there was a kind of nest at the back of her head. “I had to bring everything,” she said, and then her voice trailed off. They walked around the truck. There was her little coffee table and armchair and lamps with no shades and a box with nothing but coat hangers and other boxes with dishes in them, and then all this unrecognizable stuff like black trash bags crammed full. It was as if a crazy person had hurled it in and driven away.

Her dad offered to unpack the truck for her. “Go on, you need some rest,” he told her. “Your mother will want to see you.” What he had to do was to move stuff out of the garage and move stuff in. Rearrange everything, shift things around, start piling the boxes one on top of the other—he hadn’t realized how many there were underneath all those trash bags. He left room for the heavy things: her bed (no mattress, she must’ve gotten rid of it) and her armchair and all that, but he didn’t get very far. The pain when he twisted his back, the sensation of bone against bone, was like a shot of flame.

He’d gone to a trail of doctors, was prescribed prednisone and Vicodin and Dilaudid. He stayed in bed for a full week and a half, but then he was told to get out of bed. Lying around was the worst thing he could do, they said, so he got up, slowly. One leg at a time. Walked across the bedroom like Quasimodo. Couldn’t stand upright for the pain. Surgery was discussed, which seemed like a relief to him. Anything to get better. But Lynette talked him out of it. She said of course they want to do surgery! The more procedures they do, the more they profit, that’s their livelihood. To which he said, just like you—bring lawsuits. You’re an attorney, he said, that’s what you do. To which she said he was lucky he’d just recently retired, since if he hadn’t he would’ve lost his job by now, the way he’d been laid up at home so long. She of no sympathy, rugged to the core.

A door slammed downstairs. Lynette, home from a long day at the office. Slowly, with concentration, he sat up in bed, turned, and lowered his feet to the floor. Left foot, right foot. It was the right one that was numb, like a tingly, fuzzy, slipper sock. He felt his temper rise. Ah, thank you, Gina. Thank you for bringing me your entire apartment crammed into a truck. And thank you, Lynette, for providing a steady income and for acting as whipcracker in the household. And thank you, Percocet, which makes daily life manageable. He stood and took two small steps toward the window so that he could spot Lynette’s car in the street. But it wasn’t there. Instead there was Gina, flitting in the open like a little girl, her steps gentle and liquid, like a fairy. Barefoot, under the streetlight, then gone.

 

White rays of sun/moon/streetlight, asphalt shadows, swaying boughs. Queens Lake, Queens Lake, Queens Lake. This the same street she learned to ride a bike on, wobbly tires, wiggling handlebars, pump, pump, pump; this the same neighborhood her school bus rumbled through, year after year; these the same neighbors who bought her Girl Scout cookies and later peeked out at her from their windows. The world was a drum. Just beyond those trees, or maybe high up in the trees themselves, wasn’t that  drums? The thumping bass of a drum, foot on pedal, the tin hammer of a high hat, and the cymbal—she-shing! Drums these were. Feet on pavement following the sound, the street warm to the touch. The world was a stream. A warm, loving stream, water swirling around the ankles. Ankles of the world. Ankles of all the people of the world.

At the end of the street where it turned into a cul-de-sac, Gina rounded the circle, her feet knowing the way by instinct, as if Queens Lake had been embedded in her memory at the same time she learned the sound of her mother’s voice. She was born, fed at the breast, swaddled, diapered, and plunked into a car seat to be taken to Queens Lake. A gentle sun shone in the windows as the car turned into the drive. Here you are, little baby Gina, home.

Through the walls of a sad, shuttered house the drum beat loudly. She stood out in the street and listened, her heart keeping time. Someone was practicing inside, just one lone drummer, drumming—Tommy Ramone, Dave Grohl, John Bonham—it could be any one of them drumming in the old rancher, and she was their chosen audience. In a corner of her brain Gina knew the tune. In another corner of her brain she knew she was high. With molly, her abiding, healing friend. Trees swayed lovingly above her head. There were corridors up there. Her brain contained corridors, corners, rooms, a giant house. She ought to stay put, a voice told her in this house of her brain. But another voice, an expansive, world-welcoming voice, told her she was being invited in. Come, hear the drumming. So she walked up to the door, looked for a doorbell, and not seeing one, knocked. Timidly at first, then louder. The drum carried on. Knock, knock. She knocked until her knuckles turned sore. Knock-knock-knock, and then it occurred to her: these were the Toomeys, the hippie mom and dad and their little boy she used to babysit. Of course, David Toomey, next door! In-a-gadda-da-vida.

The drum stopped. Footsteps, an opening door. An abrupt light, a face. A bearded, Jesus face. “I’m sorry?” he said tentatively, and she said, “Oh,” and he said, “Can I help you?” and she said, “Maybe.” As if they were dancing. She began to laugh, her mouth making a burbling, chuckling sound she’d never heard before. She said, “It’s as if we’re dancing!”

“Do I know you?” he asked, and she answered, “In a way, kind of you do.”

The world was becoming marvelously absurd. She used to wash his sippy cup.

When the door closed, it felt like a long blink. The sensation of a yellow, welcoming light, then darkness. Good-bye. Standing at the closed door, she waited for the sound of the drum again, but it never came. Tree frogs rang in the hollow air. Maybe there hadn’t been a drum at all.  Out in the street, beneath the mothy streetlight, she turned toward home, warm, bare feet on the pavement. Footstep, footstep. Maybe there hadn’t even been a David.

 

Her job, Coy and Lynette had decided, would be as caregiver. Coy was recuperating more slowly than they’d hoped, and they worried that if he were alone and had a setback, no one would be there to help him. They considered one of those emergency lanyards shut-ins wear around their necks, but Coy refused. All he needed was Gina to stay close by. In case.

Deep down, he considered this a blessing in disguise. Now he could show Gina how much he cared for her; he could get to know her as an equal, as an adult. She’d been distant for so long, five hours upstate, rarely in touch. He imagined taking slow walks with her in the neighborhood. She could tell him about her life. They could share ideas, maybe read the same books and talk about them. He could lead her to books, in fact. She’d never really read them before.

Sometimes when he thought back on Gina when she was a little girl, he’d feel deep pain. Life was tough for her then, as she was always a step off.  It hurt to put it this way, even in his private thoughts. (We are, he believed, what we think.) But Gina was a step off—had been since she was little. In the years while Lynette was studying law, he was the one who went to the teacher conferences, the band concerts, the end-of-the-year awards ceremonies where nearly every kid except Gina walked onto the pathetic little stage in the gym to receive a certificate. His blood would boil—couldn’t they give her anything? And then he’d experience something like deep heartbreak as he watched Gina stand awkwardly on the top level of the portable riser, the tallest kid in the class, hovering over her peers, the boys having yet to experience a growth spurt. On the top level of the riser muttering the Pledge of Allegiance while looking up at the ceiling as if following a passing bird. At home, talking to her stuffed animals. Later, watching boy bands on television, singing along. Even later, anime cartoons and cigarettes, punk, black eyeliner, steel-toed boots. Finally a little trio of friends, for whom he wished he could feel grateful. Kirby, Danielle, Brianna. Headed straight to nowhere, said Lynette.

Somehow, because almost everybody in the world eventually finds a place to be useful, to gain some minor position in life, Gina found a job. As a veterinary assistant. It seemed like a natural fit, since she’d always loved animals. Thanks to Lynette’s allergies, she’d never been able to keep anything but birds and fish, plus the iguana, but now with this job she could care for dogs and cats all day. But then she was “let go.” The night she called with the news, Coy stayed up late reading books of meditation and theology, searching for answers. Were some simply born to fail? Were some destined to be alone, never touching and never touched? No man is an island unto himself—this he liked to believe.

The first couple weeks she was home had been a blur; he was so medicated, but then, as he began to feel better, he tried having a conversation. What music was she always listening to? What was her favorite kind of dog? Whatever happened to Danielle, Brianna, and Kirby? In the morning, they watched news shows together, but never more than a few minutes. She said the news got on her nerves. So what do you like, he asked, what gets you going, what inspires you? He wasn’t prepared for her answer. Peace and quiet is what she said. That’s all, just peace and quiet.

 

The morning after she took molly, she knew to expect a crash. A night of joy, then a crash. She’d slept fitfully, dying of thirst, chewing the inside of her mouth. Then when she could no longer lie in bed, she opened her eyes to the sun. Blue holograms throbbed in her brain, and a line of music came to her: when darkness falls. Killswitch Engage. A bird chirped outside her window, a little buzz saw. When darkness falls, I walk in with my own resolve.

She could hear her parents arguing downstairs. They could argue about anything. Today it was the tree. Coy wanted to be a good neighbor and cut it down for the Toomeys. Lynette wanted to sue them for negligence. You don’t want to enable people like them, she said, they need to learn to stand on their own two feet. This would be the running conversation of the summer, apparently. Lately Lynette had quit parking the car in the driveway for fear the tree would fall on it. She’d roll up after work and park on the street about a million miles from the house. Gina wondered how the two ever married. When she was young and living at home with them, she used to try and figure it out. Her father had almost become a preacher, still wished to be, it was obvious. He was always reading about God. Her mother had achieved the miracle of becoming a practicing attorney after years of homemaking and taking night courses, and she would never let you forget it, the price she paid.

Everybody paid a price at some point in their lives, though; Gina knew this better than anybody.

The night she’d agreed to go to the vet clinic after hours, she’d been so glad to be alone with a guy that she stopped on the way to pick up champagne. She would spend the evening with Rodney, the kennel attendant, the only person who was authorized to be at the vet clinic on a Saturday night. She considered what would happen if she got caught, if for some reason one of the doctors stopped in and found her there. But this wouldn’t happen—the docs never visited the clinic on a Saturday night. She and Rodney would have the run of the place.

He met her at the door with a look on his face that said we can do anything we want. She handed him the champagne, and together they went back to the refrigerator to chill it. Rodney nestled the champagne between a jar of mixed carporfen and a locked box of hydrated Telazol. Animal drugs. Carporfen for pain, Telazol for putting them down. He handed her a cold beer he’d brought. I always come prepared, he said. He turned on the clinic’s music, changed the station to Beck.  They wandered around the premises drinking their beers, then went back to the boarding kennel to speak to all the dogs. It was a full house. The dogs rose to life, barking, shoving their noses through the rungs of their cages as Gina and Rodney walked through. Rodney was partial to a liver-colored pit bull named Oz. If I could have any dog, he’d be the one, he said. I’d take him if I could.

They got more beer and wandered back into the clinic, looking at stuff, as if they’d never been there before. Rodney was drawn to muzzles, control poles, heavy gloves, squeeze cages—all the tools of restraint. Gina was slow to interpret him. He pulled on the heavy gloves, tucked a nylon leash in one pocket, moved in to pretend he was about to muzzle her. Before, she’d judged Rodney to be a little crazy but harmless. Now she wasn’t so sure. She kept to the other side of the room while he opened drawers randomly.  She started out to the lobby. But as she turned to go, he followed her so closely that she could hear him breathe. Next to the reception desk he wrapped both arms around her and dug his fingers into her waist. Gotcha.

The thing was, she had become desperate by then. She just needed someone to pay attention to her, someone to talk to her, maybe even love her. Don’t, she said, prying his fingers loose, but then she added: not that way.

They went back to the refrigerator and popped open the champagne. Rodney handed the bottle to her, and she drank. Bubbles fizzed in her nostrils. She handed him the bottle, and he took a long swallow. He said he was twenty-one. Gina lied, said she was twenty-six. Even that seemed old to him. He’d dropped out of community college; she’d barely graduated. Not loving school—they had that in common anyway. Then he asked her, what do you do for fun, what’s your “gig”? She didn’t have a gig, she said, the vet hospital was her gig, animals were her gig, music was her gig. Sci-fi was kind of her gig, and movies.

He watched her closely. Anything else?

Before she could answer, he pressed a hand behind her neck and pulled her to him, kissing her deeply. He had sweet, smoky breath, and soft stubble. She wondered what he’d been doing before she got here. He held her close, almost dancing with her, and as he rocked her from side to side he began easing his hands down her thighs. As if she were suddenly given the power to see what they were doing from afar, to see from above like the security camera she just remembered, the silvery black eye in the corner of the lobby ceiling she assumed had been switched off, she felt a flash of alarm. They could be caught. But wasn’t this what she’d hoped for? Not getting caught, but having sex? Hadn’t she agreed to meet Rodney at the clinic, expecting it?

Not stopping, they shuffled through the clinic and out to the lobby, Rodney managing to continue kissing while also slipping two fingers down the front of her camisole, easing the straps over her shoulders, and lowering it to her waist. In the middle of the room a sliver of light shone from behind the wall of charts and diplomas. Together they lay down on one of the soft benches, its cushions ripe with the odor of bleach and dander. Rodney began to burrow in, still dressed, then after some fumbling he removed his jeans, and Gina’s too. Gina looked up at him with wide eyes as he revealed the leash, ready to bind her. She held out her wrists.

This was not her only shame. It was also what they did after.

Woozy, spent, they dressed and made their way back into the clinic, its light blinding them briefly, and drank what was left of the champagne. Then they entered the boarding kennel and chose two dogs: Rodney the pit bull and Gina a mixed terrier she knew. They opened the back door and walked the dogs outside. It was raining, a cold spring drizzle that had the effect of waking them up, their faces now damp and bright- feeling. The dogs seemed to feel it, too, free of their constraining cages. Rodney and Gina walked them across the lawn behind the vet clinic, slipped through a hedgerow, and took to the sidewalk. There were few cars. Neither of them knew the time—it could be midnight, it could be much later. The pit bull tugged hard. He was massive, barrel-chested. A born fighter, Rodney said. The two reached the intersection ahead of Gina. She could see them silhouetted against the lights, the pit bull and Rodney, leash looped short in his hand. The traffic light turned green, and in a moment of confusion Rodney stepped out into the street, stumbled, and let go of the leash. The dog bolted. Bright headlights, cars crossing, and then the dog, caught in the middle. Within seconds a delivery truck hit him, rolling him beneath its tires. The truck careened right and jumped the curb, its lights tracing a jagged arc high above the street.

By the time Gina caught up with Rodney, it was plain there was nothing either of them could do; the pit bull had died instantly, his spine broken and a deep laceration splitting his gut. The driver of the truck sat behind the wheel, his face faintly visible in the streetlight he’d come close to hitting. He lowered his chin as if looking for something in his lap. Rodney gripped Gina’s arm. “Go,” he said. She doubled her hold on the shivering terrier’s leash, feet planted on the asphalt. “Go,” he repeated, “I’ll take care of it.”  She should walk back, shut the terrier in its cage, and . . . go home. He insisted on it. He had less to lose than she did; he would take the fall.

But he’d forgotten about the security camera. That night, stunned by the horror of the dog’s death and the fear of what was to come, they’d both forgotten the ever-watching eye in the clinic lobby. Had it been turned off? No, it hadn’t. Three months later, and Gina still lived in the shame of blurry images. As far as she knew, she’d live in the shame of those images for the rest of her life. She woke in the middle of the night and saw them. Woke again in the morning, opened her eyes, and saw them. Went downstairs into the kitchen and saw them, the blurry film of Rodney Brite and Gina Delacorte, rated X. Her parents drank their coffee and watched the news. She glanced at the TV screen. She herself had been on the news, did they know?

“Good morning, Gina, sit down and join us. We’ve just been discussing the Toomeys’ tree.”

Gina bit her tongue, actually bit it. Her whole mouth was sore. She sat down at the table. On the TV, they were talking about a storm moving off the ocean, a bright cone ready to sweep across their state.

“That tree’s completely dead now, it’s going to fall,” Lynette continued. “And you know when a tree falls, there’s no warning. It takes no more than a second, and it’s down, period, end of story. We don’t even like you going out for the mail anymore.”

The mail. Gina considered that the only good thing about taking care of her father was that she was the one, not him, to go to the mailbox each day. To retrieve what he didn’t need to see. A care package from Rodney. Legal papers.

Gina said, “If it was an act of God for that limb to fall in June, why would it not be an act of God for the whole tree to just die and then fall? Why could you sue the Toomeys for their dying tree but not their fallen limb?”

“We shouldn’t have let them get away with that dead limb,” Lynette said. “We were just being nice. The Toomeys are being negligent by not cutting down that tree. You just don’t sit around and wait till it falls, for Christ’s sake. Let’s say it falls on our car, or it falls on our house—or on you, Gina. Then how would the Toomeys feel? Talk about an avoidable tragedy!”

“So was it an act of God or not, when that limb fell?”

“It was a windy night . . .,” Coy began.

“And God makes the wind . . .,” Gina said.

“And God made the tree!” Lynette said. “You could do that all day. God made the world! But we don’t leave everything up to God. If we did, there’d be no need for law.  Some things we control.”

“So do you really plan to sue the Toomeys, the nice Toomeys? Aren’t they bankrupt?”

“I don’t think we really plan to sue them,” Coy said.

He was interrupted by Lynette. “I do,” she said. “I’m going to issue them a summons. If they don’t take down that tree, then I’ll force them to do it.”

Gina could picture it: the summons. According to Rodney, who sent her text messages every day, it was just a matter of time. The vet clinic was losing business, for one thing. Then there was the truck driver, the one who’d hit Oz. He’d climbed out, looked down at the dog, and complained of neck pain. Gina and Rodney would be called in to testify. It would all come out, everything they did that night.

The clinic would shut down, and the tape would be public record.

When the incident happened, it made the local news. PRIZE DOG ESCAPES FROM VET CLINIC OVERNIGHT, IS RUN OVER. Rodney claimed he’d left the back door open, said he’d propped it open when he misplaced the key. The pit bull was out, he confessed; he shouldn’t have let the dog out of its cage, but he wanted to play with him. For a week, this was the story, and it seemed to be believed. Rodney was summarily fired, the dog’s owners were compensated, and Gina stayed at work. But then one morning, one of the vets took down the security camera and replayed the tape. Gina + Rodney. Confronted with the truth, Gina walked out of the clinic and threw up.

I’m going to issue them a summons. How was it that life worked this way, that one person’s tragedy could intersect with another’s, unbeknownst to both, like that guy getting stabbed at the Rolling Stones concert while another guy drowned there that same night, both of them just wanting to hear music? Or like two people at a doctor’s office in the waiting room, side by side, about to hear the same devastating news?

Gina went to the kitchen window and looked out at the Toomeys’ house. It appeared dark, even in the bright light of day, its window screens blackened with age. It occurred to her that the windows were wide open in the heat. They weren’t running their air conditioning. Maybe they didn’t turn on any lights. Something bad had clearly happened to them along the way. They couldn’t even pay their mortgage. Funny how everybody seemed to know. So their lives sucked, too.

At least they still had a house. Not only did she not have a house, or an apartment anymore, she didn’t have a job anymore either. Probably wouldn’t be able to get another job, ever. With her record, not even a dirty little convenience store would hire her. She looked into her future and saw nothing. A black tunnel of nothing. The Toomeys, though: at least they had their music. There they were, sitting in their hot, dark, foreclosed-upon house, hitting the drums and playing the bass in a hippie version of the Von Trapps. She was sure it was Mr. Toomey on the bass. He used to teach lessons back in the day.

All she had was her parents, to whom she was an alien, and Rodney, who wouldn’t stop sending her messages. They were in this together, he said. It was his fault; he shouldn’t have made her do the things he did.

Don’t talk about it anymore, she texted back. And never ever call.

What can I do? I want to make it up to you.

Send me molly.

 

The summons came a week later by way of a sheriff’s deputy. Coy was the one to answer the door: mud-gray uniform, bright badge. “I’m here to serve a summons for Gina Delacorte.” As if by clairvoyance, she’d known he was coming, Gina appeared in the doorway. The deputy asked for identification, and she had it ready. Then without saying a word she took the summons from the deputy’s hand and vanished.

It all happened so fast that Coy wasn’t sure if he imagined it. He watched the deputy’s car pull away, its whipping antenna. He felt a nerve tingle in the back of his neck. Something big had just happened, but he wasn’t sure what. In his mind, there was  now a permanent snapshot of Gina’s fingers pinching a yellow, yellow envelope. Already she was back in her room, sequestered again in the inner sanctum she had created for herself when she first arrived in June. Back then he’d been glad for it, the room she could retreat to, glad for the chance to care for her again, like a child. But she’d become a mystery, and as the summer went by he’d grown afraid to talk to her.

He crept up the stairs. He considered knocking on her door but thought better of it. Not knowing what to do with himself, he went to his room to lie down, to hear her if she cried or called out. Her trouble, whatever it was, had left him shattered, and he fought the urge to rush into her room and swallow her in an unaccustomed embrace. Now more than ever he was sure he’d do anything for her, anything. Outside, the storm was coming, a strong storm that he could almost smell. He was glad Lynette was at work, and he prayed she’d be tied up at her desk for a long time. He listened for any sign of Gina, tried to imagine what she was doing in her room. He pictured her sitting on her bed reading the summons. Or she’d already read it, and now she was lying down, her face buried in her pillow.

How utterly impossible it was that she, of all people, would be in trouble.  Nothing in her whole life’s experience suggested she’d ever be. She was the timid one in every party, hanging against the wall—had never even had a date as far as he knew. There were times he’d actually wished she’d get in trouble! But now that she was, he wished the opposite for her. That she could be happy, that life could be good to her, and fun, and easy.

He lay flat on his bed, eyes fixed on the ceiling, and tried to listen, but it was noisy outside. That Toomey kid, banging his damned drums again in his dark little den. And the wind barreling down on them all, like a train. An act of God if ever there was one, perfectly, divinely timed.

A sudden blast of music brought him to his feet, the high wail of a Stratocaster and a pounding bass. Gina. The music was so loud that he feared she was on the brink of destroying something—her room, herself. Something is about to break, he thought, things are going to fly. He stepped out into the hall and heard Gina’s voice. Not crying, not shouting, but singing. He went to her door and opened it. Through tears, she smiled at him. “Dad.” She took the summons from her bed and handed it to him. “See,” she said, “it’s not about the tree.”

In his heart he had told himself he’d do anything for her, and he would, he told himself again, he would, he would. He held the summons in his hands, and the words blurred before his eyes. She would have to appear in court. “Just come with me,” she said. “Let’s go around the neighborhood on a walk, like old times.” She kept crying and smiling at once, like a happy, crazy person. She slipped a little pill in his hand. White, maybe an aspirin. “For your back, to help you walk.”

He’d do anything, so he swallowed it.

On the news, they’d said they were in the direct path of a hurricane, a Category 1 they’d named Kyle. The name made Gina laugh. We’re going out to meet Kyle, she said. Come on, Dad. The trees of the neighborhood swayed wildly, their thick summer foliage fanning the sky. Queens Lake, Queens Lake. She took his arm, and he faltered. Soon you’ll feel fine, she said. Come, I’ll go slow with you. She made her steps tiny. See? A little bit at a time.

Coy felt himself turning strange. The wind grew louder in his ears. Out in the street, a garbage can tumbled by. He shouted Gina’s name. In his mind he added a question—what did you do?—but he wasn’t sure whether the question made it out of his mouth. There she was, keeping him steady. What did you do, what did you do, love.

She squeezed his elbow and walked on tiptoes, like a dancer. Did he say love?

They arrived at the tree. They hadn’t had to travel far to get here. Oh holy tree, blessed holy tree! Heavy, fat raindrops began to fall. She lifted her face. Come, let’s go under.

He paid no attention to the tree, or the rain. Instead he focused on Gina. No matter what she did.

She dropped to her knees, then fell flat on her back. Dad, say something to the tree!

The pain of getting to his knees, then to lie prone on the hard ground, inch by inch, spine curling like a monkey’s. He heard the tree lean into the oncoming gusts, the eerie, creaking limbs. His ears were like radar; he could hear anything in the world. And his arms—how prickly this summer grass, how prickly and tickly.

 

Note
“Ecstasy” appears in Pease’s new collection, Let Me Out Here, in slightly different form under the title “Fall.”

Emily W. Pease
Emily W. Pease received an MFA at Warren Wilson College in 2000. She has published short stories in Witness, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, Narrative, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her story "Tad Lincoln's Ladder of Dreams" won the Editor's Prize in Fiction at the Missouri Review in 1999. She later won the Bevel Summers Prize at Shenandoah in 2014 and the Crazyshorts! Prize at Crazyhorse in 2015. In 2018, her story "The After Life" was named one of the top five Narrative Stories of the Week. Most recently, her collection, Let Me Out Here, won the inaugural C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize at Hub City Press. After a long career of teaching writing at the College of William and Mary, she has taught writing in the Virginia correctional system as well as with the Armed Services Arts Partnership.