The Back Forty, Ch. 2.4

Mary Anne's house

Cain put the last Legos in place to complete the cab on the monster truck. All he had to do now was build the wheel wells and put in the four wheels in the box and he’d be done. Not exactly a difficult set, but Cain knew it was more about giving him something to do while he watched his sister. His mother had been gone for a while now and the sun had completed its descent behind the trees. Going behind the yard arm, as Mr. Pickens down at the diner in town would say. Cain liked Mr. Pickens. The old man always wore a filthy apron as he made eggs, bacon and sausage for his regulars at the griddle. In between flipping sausage patties, he would come out and chew the fat with the locals, filling their coffee and grabbing empty plates. Nobody seemed to mind that he was breaking at least two or three laws in the health code as he did because he was so friendly and knew everybody by name. Every now and then, he would sneak Cain a Fun Size Snickers or Mr. Goodbar he produced from a box underneath the cash register. He would look at Cain knowingly and the boy would stow it away in his pocket for later consumption.

“Come on Tanny,” Cain said. “You can finish that tomorrow. It’s time to go inside.”

“O-kaay,” his little sister said and stood up from the Lego set. Cain slid open the plate glass door and they went into the kitchen.

“Let’s play Memory until Mom comes back,” he suggested. He got the box from a closet on the landing that went downstairs and they sat down on the floor of the kitchen. As Cain set up the cards, Tanny took off her shoes and set them neatly in the row of footwear under the coat rack on the landing. After playing two rounds of the game, Cain looked up to the window. It was completely dark outside. As he set up the cards for another game, Cain heard what sounded like someone throwing rocks around the fire pit in the backyard. Another minute went by. Then he heard a loud metallic BANG!

The cast-iron cabinets under the grill, he thought. Tanny, focused intently on the game, had heard nothing.

Cain stood up and walked to the sliding door. He locked it, then pulled forward the floor-to-ceiling vertical blinds to cover the door. Cain took a step back from the door, then stood, listening.

“Come on Cain,” Tanny said. “Let’s get moving turkey,” and giggled.

The boy waited for what seemed like another 10 minutes before her heard the sound of boots crushing the Legos on the porch. He immediately turned and pulled his sister off the floor.

“Nooo,” Tanny protested. “I wanna play the game.”

Cain said nothing as he pulled Tanny behind him out into the hallway and into the bathroom. He locked the door, then pulled his sister into the bathtub and closed the shower curtain.

“You have to be really quiet, okay?” Cain whispered to his sister. “We’re hiding.”

“Like in Bloody Murder?”

“Yes,” Cain whispered. “Just like Bloody Murder.”

“Who are we hiding from?” his sister asked.

“Shush.” Cain held his finger over his mouth.

For another minute, there was no sound from the back yard at all. Then, faintly, he heard a rattling coming from the basement. Someone was trying to open the cellar doors. Cain heard the doors rattle once more, then silence. For a moment, Cain, putting all his strength into not shaking, breathed shallow breaths, his sister tucked under his right arm. Then he stood up from his position sitting Indian-style in the bathtub. He wasn’t tall enough to see out the small sliding window in the shower that opened on the back yard. He crouched back down and huddled with his sister, listening intently. For what he wasn’t sure.

After an indeterminate amount of time, Cain stood up on his tip toes and tried to look out the window again but couldn’t. He stood with his back to the tile wall. He had used up all of his self-control and was now shaking. Tanny had buried her face in his chest.

“Can we go out now?” she whined.

He waited another minute and was almost ready to get out of the tub. Then he heard feet on the back porch again. This time, the footsteps were fast and deliberate. Cain heard the Legos being kicked aside as whoever it was approached the door, then paused.

Then, the doorbell rang.

Cain heard quick steps on the back porch, then down the stairs. He and his sister cowered in the bathtub when the doorbell rang again. A moment went by, then he heard someone on the porch again. This time, he heard the heavy sound of one of the big stone pots on the back porch being moved. Then, a key opened the back door and he heard the sliding door open.

“Cain! Tanny!” his mother yelled from the kitchen.

Cain and his sister got out of the tub and Cain unlocked the door. His sister ran out of the bathroom as his mother came into the hallway. Tanny hugged her mother’s legs and Madeline picked her up.

“Cain! Why didn’t you open the door when I rang the bell?!”

 

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The Back Forty, Ch. 2.3

Mary Anne's house

Hearing her scream, Sassy came charging out of the thick trees and ran into Madeline. The puppy began licking her face out of love, then out of hunger as it tasted the raw, rotting offal. Overjoyed to see the puppy, Madeline pulled Sassy to her as she got up and held the puppy tight, kissing him over and over. Madeline rose and put Sassy on the ground. Getting the dog’s leash from her back pocket, she clipped it around Sassy’s neck.

“Never going to make that mistake again, my friend,” she said. Relieved that she had found the dog, Madeline’s repose was short-lived. She still had no idea how to get home.

With Sassy safely back at her side, Madeline walked along into a thick patch of leaves that covered a small drop in the forest floor. She stumbled down a few steps and forward a few more until she reached flatness. She looked up to find that the moon had moved six inches two the right of where it was the last time she looked.

I’m going south, she thought, drawing from her many gazes at the same moon during her walks in Central Park during her years in the city. Since her house was east of the preserve, she knew if she headed in the opposite direction the moon was traveling, she eventually would hit the 2-lane road that meandered back to her house.

She was right. After walking for about 30 minutes, Sassy’s leashed wrapped twice around her wrist the whole time, she came out of the woods and on to a grassy area beside the road. Her knees relieved to be on paved surface again, Madeline turned back north, keeping on the opposite side of the road as her direction so the lights of any oncoming cars would cast directly on her. No cars did come at her, but a few came up behind her. The last one cast light onto a reflector she saw on the road up ahead. She could barely see it, but she could tell that the reflector was low to the ground. It was on a kid’s bike. And there was no other reflectors around it. As she approached, Madeline could tell from the speed with which the reflector grew that whoever was coming down the road towards her wasn’t riding the bike but pushing it alongside them. She walked a little farther until Sassy found a rock on the side of the road and felt the need to mark it. When he was finished, he shook mightily. When he did, he rattled his tags that were on his collar enough that whoever had been coming at her stopped. Madeline continued forward until suddenly whoever had been walking towards her scrambled off of the road side and into the woods.

Considering how late it had gotten, Madeline was concerned that it might be a kid that was lost and needed her help. She jogged up to where she thought whoever it was had left the road, then walked into the trees back in the direction she had just come. Back in the forest now, she banged her shin on the bike’s frame where it lay against a large oak tree. She looked around but saw no one.

“Hello?” she called to no answer. “Hello!” she called again. Nothing. No other sign of anyone. She heard what she thought might be someone rustling through branches deeper in the forest, but she had absolutely no desire to go back where she had been. She had gotten her bearings, thank you very much, and she was going to stick to it until she got home. She walked back to road in the direction of her house until she could see the floodlights casting their glow on her home and she had never been so happy to see it. She turned and walked up the winding drive to her front door and rang the doorbell.

There was no answer.

The Back Forty. Ch. 2.2

Mary Anne's house

“Sassy!” she shouted as she walked. “Come to mommy!” Panic grew with each step and Madeline changed directions again, this time in no particular direction at random. She had become more concerned about the dog than her location. She could hear the voice of her husband chastising her for thinking the dog could handle being off leash. That made her cries grow louder.

“Sa-ssy! Come on baby!” Her voice cracked and her eyes burned with the coming tears. “Come on boy! Let’s go home!” She stopped and listened. Silence. And apart from the light cast by the harvest moon in the gaps of a thick layer of clouds, it was now dark.

—————————————————————————————-

Madeline took a deep breath as she surveyed the dark forest around her.

You should have brought a flashlight Maddie, she thought. To her husband, she was Madeline. To her children, she was Mom. She called herself Maddie in the moments she had to get her own attention. Stephen had called her that when he was three drinks into his tippling for the evening and at first it annoyed her as much as his drinking. She wouldn’t have minded the nickname if he had used it when he was sober but he never did. It was only when he had lowered a few barriers that he decided to get overly friendly with her. Or anyone. After the divorce, she found herself calling herself Maddie more and more and she found she liked the name when it wasn’t coming out of her ex-husband.

Judging from where the moon was, she roughly knew the direction back to the house. Kind of. She walked for 5 minutes in what she thought was the right direction, all the while keeping an eye and an ear open for Sassy. Looking up at the moon again, she gauged she was walking in the right direction but shifted 15 degrees to the left when she should have turned right. She walked for another 10 minutes before deciding she was no less lost than when she started when she heard a rustling in the leaves to her left again.

“Sassy! Is that you?” she called. The rustling had stopped. Then it started and stopped again.  Madeline walked towards where she thought the noise had come from. As she walked, she heard a crunch under her boots. She bent down and brushed back a thicket to reveal a large disemboweled deer rotting in the brush. The sight and the smell of the animal hit her at the same time and she immediately bent over, pinched her eyes closed and dry heaved. She opened her eyes, saw the deer’s rotting entrails in a path leading away from the body where something had made off with its recycled dinner and retched again. This time though, it wasn’t dry. She vomited most of her own dinner onto her boots. She immediately stumbled away from the deer, vomited again, and walked further away from the carcass and further into the woods. Once she was far enough away from the sight and the smell of the animal, Madeline took a roll of Wintergreen LifeSavers from her pocket and put the last two in her mouth.

But there’s no one out here to see the spark, she thought as she bit down on one, crunched it up and swallowed. She walked for another few minutes, then stopped again. At this point, two things were certain. That was the most disgusting thing she had ever seen. And she was very, very lost. She looked at the sky again but the moon had hidden behind clouds. She looked at the forest around her, searching for anything that looked like a trail. She found none. About ten feet from her, though, she saw what looked like a path of matted down leaves. She followed the path to a clearing. In the middle was a make-shift fire pit with a pile of large, burned-out branches.  Surrounding the pit were five empty bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 and Boone’s Farm wine, with other, upright bottles in a circle around the pile, each with candles in the necks and melted wax holding them in place.

Madeline walked around the fire pit, kicking one of the empty bottles into the brush where it clinked against a rock. Feeling a pang of guilt, she walked over and bent down to grab the bottle and throw it back towards the pit when she noticed something. Underneath the rock were two books. She crouched down, lifted the rock and pulled them out. The clouds parted long enough to cast a ray of moonlight on the covers. The first was Magic Spells and the Occult. The second was Human Sacrifice and the Supernatural in African History. The first had a Barnes and Noble receipt marking a page about how to prepare for a séance. Madeline stared at them until clouds engulfed the light again. Instinctively, she raised her gaze up at the forest around her, shifting her glance from one direction to another like a child frantically checking the perimeter for grown-ups. Silence and darkness surrounded her. Her hands trembled as she slowly crouched down and returned the books to their place beneath the rock. She stood again and wiped her hands together. Walking back in the direction she had come, she looked over her shoulder at the clearing several times. As she looked back one more time, her foot caught on the head of the deer she had found moments before and she fell face-first into the corpse. She screamed as her open mouth planted into the animal’s torn-apart stomach.

Hearing her scream, Sassy came charging out of the thick trees and ran into Madeline. The puppy began licking her face out of love, then out of hunger as it tasted the raw, rotting offal. Overjoyed to see the puppy, Madeline pulled Sassy to her as she got up and held the puppy tight, kissing her over and over. Madeline rose and put Sassy on the ground. Getting the dog’s leash from her back pocket, she clipped around Sassy’s neck.

“Never going to make that mistake again, my friend,” she said. Relieved that she had found the dog, Madeline’s repose was short-lived. She still had no idea how to get home.

The Back Forty, Chapter 2

Mary Anne's house

Madeline crossed over the property line that separated her home from the Mine Hill Preserve. She wasn’t worried about finding her way back. When she and Colin had first married, the two of them had crossed over into the preserve many times and she felt like she knew the terrain of the area that led to the hiking trail. She remembered those days well.

The two lovers had married when she was 38 and Colin was a decade younger. She had been married before that, a period of her life she didn’t like to talk about. With anyone. Not that she gave herself much of a choice in that matter. After she married Colin, the two had settled on a house that was only 90 minutes from New York but for her, it was half a world away from the chaos of the life she left there. The little town of less than 2,000 people was exactly the size Madeline was looking for and Colin was the type of husband she had always wanted. Proper, refined and most importantly, distant. She would never have to worry about Colin having one (or three) too many dirty martinis and making a scene at an art opening, something her first husband excelled at. When he wasn’t drunk, Stephen was a perfectly affable man and a friend to everyone. When he was drunk, he was a buffoon, embarrassing himself and his wife whenever they went out. Right up until the day he died from a massive heart attack, Stephen exemplified the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde behavior common among alcoholics.

Not so Colin. Madeline’s second husband was a work horse. And yet in those early days when they were very much in love, he would still make time for the two to go walking around the preserve, hand in hand, and savor the embrace of the forest in silence for hours. Occasionally they would talk, but often no more than about what either knew about the native foliage or a farmer’s market one had heard about and thought they should try. Walking up to the deck afterwards, both would take off their hiking boots at the back door and Colin would sit in the living room reading the Wall Street Journal or the Times as Madeline made an elaborate dinner she would serve at the dining room table. Things were neat, orderly and simple.

As time went on, Colin became more and more absorbed in the business of making more and more money. This also was a trait Madeline saw coming and had no issue with at all. When she had gotten pregnant a year after the two were married, she began to nurture a domestic side that had been completely foreign to her and that she very much liked. She would peruse interior design magazines and, dutifully, show Colin her ideas for the new nursery or the kitchen she had always wanted. Pleased that he had a wife that embraced what he believed to be her appropriately feminine nature, Colin was happy to approve this idea or veto that one.

Yet more money meant more time away from her husband and Madeline took to walking in the woods by herself. That’s when Madeline had gotten the latent idea of purchasing a dog she could share her walks with. It was serendipitous when one day there was a copy of Dog Fancy (it belonged to a neighbor) in with the design magazines. Colin took note as his wife cooed over the photos and a month after that, surprised her with a card with a picture of a puppy and a directory of breeders he had printed out for her. Madeline believed she had the most romantic husband in the world.

Walking in the preserve with the new puppy brought back to Madeline the rush of getting lost in the woods all over again. And watching Sassy sprint back and forth absorbing all the sights and scents of the forest filled her with the wonderment she had first felt in those days walking with Colin. It was almost like she was smelling the mist of the forest again for the first time. Every so often, Sassy would reach the end of the leash and turn to look squarely back at Madeline.

“Come on Sassy, come to mommy,” she said as she crouched down and Sassy came sprinting back to her. Madeline could hardly believe it was her who was saying these sappy maternal things and she felt good doing it. Sassy would plunge face first between her legs, then raise up his head and nuzzle Madeline with complete abandon. Sometimes he would immediately run back into the forest and sometimes he would linger there and let Madeline scratch his neck and his belly. After only a week of having the puppy, Madeline added an afternoon walk to their routine and after three weeks, an evening walk. It was on the first night when Madeline took Sassy out right before dusk that something happened that wasn’t unique to first-time puppy owners. But to Madeline, it was just short of terrifying.

After dinner with Cain and Tanny, Madeline rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Cain took to the table in his room and worked on a model airplane he had been absorbed with for a week and Tanny made camp on the floor of her room to work on one of her jigsaw puzzles. Madeline wiped off the kitchen table where she and her children ate when Colin was in the city. It was September when they had acquired the dog, which meant that she had another hour before darkness fell. Zipping up her fleece jacket, she leashed up Sassy and walked outside and into the forest. The leaves on the trees were in their full autumn brilliance and Madeline embraced the peaceful calm her walks with Sassy always brought. She walked to the hiking trail and followed that for what she estimated to be no more than a quarter mile or so. In fact, it was much longer.

When the sunlight reflecting off the trees began to dim, she turned and walked back to where she thought she had started on the trail. As she turned off to walk back to the property, Sassy had begun running to the edge of the leash again. Madeline decided to let him off the leash as she figured they were no more than 100 yards from the back yard. She bent over to unhook the leash just as Sassy had focused on something in the brush nearby. He bolted. Whatever he had trained his gaze on gave chase and within 10 seconds, Sassy was gone.

Madeline’s stomach immediately cinched up like she had eaten bad calamari and for a moment, she couldn’t move. She started to run into the brush after the dog but she had no idea where the beast had gone in seeking his prey. She walked quickly in one direction for 30 paces, shouting his name all the while. As her panic grew, she second-guessed herself and turned 90 degrees and walked in that direction.

“Sassy!” she shouted as she walked. “Come to mommy!” Panic grew with each step and Madeline changed directions again, this time in no particular direction. She had become more concerned about the dog than her location. She could hear the voice of her husband chastising her for thinking the dog could handle being off leash. That made her cries grow louder.

“Sas-ssy! Come on baby!” Her voice cracked and her eyes burned with the coming tears. “Come on girl! Let’s go home!” She stopped and listened. Silence. And apart from the light cast by the harvest moon, it was now dark.

The Back Forty, Ch. 1.5

 

Mary Ann's House 5

 

They called it “the back forty.” But really, the Mine Hill Nature Preserve encompassed a lot more than 40 acres of forest. Within a week of his family obtaining their “family dog” (Cain’s father held his perfect family unit in high regard in terms of appearances), Cain’s mother had readily taken to waking early, putting on her new brand new hiking boots and walking with Sassy in the vast expanse of woods that abutted the back yard. In turn, Sassy (Cain hadn’t objected to the renaming of Sasquatch since he didn’t much care about the name, or the dog for that matter, in the first place) would readily accept her putting on his leash and walking beyond the back yard to the tree his mother once called The Weeping Angel. There she would get down on her knees and retie her boots before venturing into the forest. On the first day she did this, Cain and Tanny were playing with Legos on the deck.

“Okay, now you be good while I take Sassy to do her business,” Madeleine had said. “Remember, I’ve got my cell with me, so you call me if you need to come back to the house, okay?’

“Okay. Bye Mom,” Cain said, not looking up the monster truck he was building. In her excitement to get the dog out and walking, Madeline had seemingly forgotten that the family’s cell phones got sporadic reception at best at or near their own house. Cain wasn’t worried anyway. At 8 years old, he had reached a level of maturity beyond his years. He knew if he kept Tanny building the Eiffel Tower set she was working on, he would have no need to contact his mother. Besides, he knew where the first aid kit and the house phone were in the kitchen.

Madeleine went down the dozen or so steps to the back yard. She crossed to her garden at the very edge of the property. Opening the fenced gate, she examined some of the blooming flowers of late summer and checked on the basil and parsley plants, holding her nose above them and inhaling deeply. Satisfied, she walked back out of the fenced area and to the tree she affectionately called (to herself, anyway) The Weeping Angel about 10 yards past the property line of the back yard. She knelt to retie her boots, then wrapped Sassy’s leash around her hand a couple times and set off into the woods. Sassy bounded this way and that until he got to the end of the Flexi leash and proceeded to slam down in his back. Unphazed, he would stand up again, shake off his tumble, and run sideways in the opposite direction until he reached the end of the leash again and repeated his flanking maneuver.

Cain watched as she went. He took a deep breath and felt a tinge of relief. Being beyond his age was good for home security, but Cain had no idea what his mother wanted or needed. He just knew she wasn’t getting it the way things were right now. When Cain’s father was home, the two of them spent many nights sitting and talking in the Great Room. Madeline had been half-heartedly studying for a real estate exam for over a year and she and Colin discussed that and whatever was in the news on TV. That is, when Cain’s father came home at all. Colin often stayed the whole week in a hotel in Manhattan when he didn’t commute to the investment firm he worked for. Those weeks, Madeline took care of the house and the kids by herself, not that that was any different than when Cain’s father did come home. The difference was Colin would occasionally state his final verdict about a remodeling decision or Tanny’s bedtime and Madeline would simply comply. Even when Colin wasn’t there. It was easier that way. His father never offered anything about his life or work outside their house and his mother never asked.

Cain watched as his mother almost jogged to the garden, then the tree, then into the forest. He hoped that whatever she was looking for was in those woods somewhere.

He went back to his Lego set.

The Back Forty, Ch. 1.4

Mary Anne's house

Sasquatch had clown feet. He practically tripped over them as his puppy vigor and scatterbrain led him all around the house, poking his nose into every nook and cranny, and there were plenty of those. Madeleine, Cain’s mom, put together a house that was almost regal in its simplicity. Every room was open to the rooms on either side by great open walkways and there was plenty of well-placed decorum that Sasquatch would get to rooting behind a tall indoor tree, then turn his attention to one of the crevices in the immense brown leather sofa in the family room, then get distracted by the large stone fireplace in the living room and spend a minute or two sniffing around in there. Then he would remember there were people around and come barreling into the kitchen, partitioned off from the other rooms by waist high oak walls with the middle third open between rooms.

“Your father and I knew you had always wanted a puppy.” Madeleine beamed as Cain and Tanny sat on the floor nuzzling the dog in turns. Then, Cain raised his head from the puppy and looked at his parents.

“I never said I wanted a puppy.” Even as a child, Cain had learned from his father to be reserved and guarded with expressing his feelings. He remembered saying “Oh look at that puppy” once when he saw one in town, but the boy had said it the same way he would have said it would be nice if his sister raked the leaves on Saturday instead of him or if the family had spaghetti for dinner.

“Oh come now,” Colin, his father, said. “Every boy wants a puppy.” Colin’s chauvinism was always well hidden, to the point where his mother didn’t even seem to acknowledge it anymore. At seven-years-old, Tanny was certainly too young to recognize it either. Besides, she was too busy squeezing her arms around the squirming puppy until he finally got loose and went tearing around the house again, revisiting each corner and the new smells of the mahogany floors and bookshelves in every room.

Cain thought the whole scene was surreal. His mother had never shown the least bit of interest in the Brockfield Labs when they and the Brockfields, their closest neighbors who lived a quarter mile down the road, walked by the driveway. Madeleine always made a point of waving to them as they passed and they waved back, but he was sure she wouldn’t so much as ask as to borrow a cup of sugar from them even if she needed it. His father rarely showed much interest in anything except his job and his grill in the back yard, let alone a dog. Cain eyed his father, who stared back at the boy as if the brief conversation was now over. The puppy-to-be-named had sprinted back into the kitchen and Cain had resumed scratching his chest, looking back at his father suspiciously every few moments.

“What will we name it?” Tanny broke the tension with the grace that only the lilt of a little girl’s voice can.

“Well, how about Lady?” Madeleine said as she knelt on the floor and called the puppy to her by tapping the floor. He wiggled his butt over to her and flipped onto this back to accept a belly rub. For the first time since Cain could remember, his mother genuinely smiled a big, toothy smile.

“I think Cain should be the one who names it, don’t you?” Colin asked

“Yes, I suppose he should. Since it will be his dog,” Madeleine said quietly, submissively. She resumed scratching the puppy’s belly, leaning her face over the puppy’s to accept a bounty of puppy kisses. Cain had never seen his mother express this kind of physical love to any other living creature. She always had hugs for him and Tanny, but she was awkward and stilted when she did it, like embracing a child was a tedious chore she wasn’t familiar with at all. With the puppy, Madeleine seemed unguarded and open. Cain could tell it was going to be his mother’s dog. But his father had charged him with naming it. Case closed. He thought for a minute, searching for a name that his father would approve of.

“How about Yeti?” Cain said, thinking back on book he had checked out at the library in town called Fantastic Creatures! The book had chapters on all the creatures of folk lore from Chupacabra to the Loch Ness Monster. He knew his father would approve of any name that came out of a book.

Tanny frowned. “I don’t like that name,” she said. “Yeti’s are gross.”

Cain wondered if Tanny even knew what a Yeti was, then remembered his mother extolling him to be nicer to his little sister. “Okay, how about … Titan? Y’know, like that big lizard in that movie we saw last week. The Kraken.”

“Titans are too big,” Tanny said with a frown. This wasn’t going the way his sister wanted.

“This little guy is going to be very big,” Cain’s mother said. “The nice lady we got him from said he will be as big as a house!” Madeleine poked Tanny in the belly and Tanny giggled. Cain relied on his mother for about two moments per month where she showed tenderness and playfulness towards him and his sister. The puppy must have brought one of those moments to the fore. Cain smiled a little at this, then pulled his attention away and back to his father who had loosened his tie.

“How about … Sasquatch?” Cain offered, pulling a random name from his book again.

“Good. Sasquatch it is then,” Colin said with a quick nod. Cain could see that his father was less interested in the dog’s name than he was in closing the book on this moment of sentimentality. “Madeleine, a drink,” he said as he turned and walked into the living room. He sat in the stiff leather chair next to the sofa and unfolded his New York Times, shielding his face.

“Cain, why don’t you and your sister take Sassy outside for a little walk while I get dinner started?” his mother said and rose to go into the kitchen. And just like that, the adorable little behemoth that was Sasquatch became his mother’s dog with the horrible nickname Sassy. The name stuck.

The Back Forty, Ch. 1.3

Mary Anne's house

Cain sat on the bench for 10 minutes, staring at the clouds as they swirled to the south. Then, as if broken from a trance, he stood up abruptly and walked around to the other side of the house from the one he had taken to the back yard. He pressed down and lifted up the overgrown bushes that had muscled their way onto the path that led to the front yard until his boots crunched on broken glass.

Squatting down, he pulled away the brush to find what had been the window to his father’s study, along with a pile of shattered LP’s on the ground. He pulled up the first shard that had a label on it. It was Someday My Prince Will Come, one of his Dad’s old Miles Davis records. Whoever had started the project of hurling his father’s beloved jazz and blues records out the window had apparently tired of their game quickly and started flinging empty beer bottles too as they were at least two dozen mostly empty Busch Light bottles sprayed among and around the shattered records.

Cain had been sometimes dry, but mostly not, for over five years. He attended AA meetings with the same lack of commitment with which he approached staying dry. Sometimes he went to meetings and left with such a high that he would vow to never drink again. Of course, he had heard all of the conventional wisdom about never saying never, that it’s an almost certain one-way ticket to “going back out.” But try telling that to an addict or alcoholic in the leathery embrace of false confidence. But it seemed like he didn’t require much of a trigger at all to suit up, get pretty, and go out to one of the 19 million bars that populate the north side of Chicago. If he was on his game and having a good sales month, his mood reflected it. He shot great pool. He was charming and charismatic and he always went home with a pretty girl 10 years his junior. When sales were down, he would, subconsciously or not he didn’t really know, go out to with the express purpose of getting hammered. He would inevitably succeed and, libido sufficiently quelled, stumble to the street and catch a cab to El Norte to eat chips and salsa and burritos until he stumbled out to the alley to puke it all up.

Often (more times than he cared to admit, actually) Cain would blame genetics. He was an Irishman, for Christ’s sake. Asking an Irishman why they drink is like asking water why it’s wet, his thinking went. Even when he was talking to Luther, the sponsor he consulted about as often as he went to meetings, he insisted that it was in his blood. When that didn’t sate the old bastard, Cain would switch it up and pull out one of the other 20 excuses he kept in his Alcoholic But Trying goody bag. Growing up, it was unthinkable that every family gathering wouldn’t have a wet bar, every wedding an open bar, ever wake Irish. Sometimes he would draw from his history of drug and alcohol abuse, insisting that what he was doing now was way better than what he did 1 or 10 years ago. The excuses went on and on and Luther, with 23 years of sobriety in his corner, had heard every one. Cain was made painfully aware of when that time had come because Luther would hang up in the middle of his sermon. Sometimes Cain would call him back, apologize profusely and promise to go to two meetings tomorrow. Sometimes he didn’t and got drunk instead. Inevitably, the next day, the two would meet for breakfast (Cain would just have coffee as John Barleycorn was still having his way with Cain’s intestines) and they would go through the Why’s and Who’s of last night’s bender. But no matter what he offered, at some point, he and Cain would look each other in the eyes and silently acknowledge the truth. Cain was chasing a buzz he would never have again. That all those years of the good and great times he had drinking and doping were gone and he was never going to get them back. Than these days, he was nothing more than an adequate salesman and substandard boyfriend, brother and son.

This last one always stung the most. His mother and father had never drank to excess, at least in front of him and his sister. As far as they were concerned, Cain and Tanny were the products of a loving, if distant, household. Their father worked diligently doing whatever it is you do at a top New York City hedge fund. Cain never really bothered to ask his father what he did for a living and his father never offered it up. Really, his parents never offered anything up. That was kind of the problem. Cain and Tanny never lacked for anything. There was never a baseball glove he wanted but didn’t get for Christmas and Tanny’s playroom was riddled with enough dolls and stuffed animals to keep Toys for Tots stocked for 10 years. That’s how Cain’s parents thought they were supposed to do it. Keep the kids happy by buying them everything they wanted so they could play with their toys and leave the adults alone. On that rare occasion that his father would have three Manhattans instead of his usual two, he would go into his study after dinner to read and listen to jazz.

And things kept on that way until Cain was 8. On that birthday, his parents surprised him with a Burnese Mountain Dog puppy who Cain named Sasquatch.

The Back Forty Ch. 1.2

Mary Anne's house

 

Penny insisted on being called Penelope now, but Cain called her by the name she went by when they were together. She didn’t seem to mind. She had insisted on at least dinner and a night at her place before Cain made the drive from Boston to the house. Penny always made a great baked ziti when she had occasion to and the two friends were seeing each other after 6 years. In the wake of their respective nervous breakdowns and regrouping periods, a night of repose and catching up before his two hours in the car certainly called for that.

“Jesus H. Christ!” She exclaimed when Cain got out to the curb. “What have you done with my friend?” she said as the two hugged for what felt like an hour. Finally, they separated to really look at each other.

“Stop it,” he said as she opened the trunk for his bag.

“You, sir, are not getting in my car until you tell me what you’ve done with the fat, bearded man,” she said, looking him up and down.

“Can we go now?”

She grinned and walked around to the driver’s seat as Cain got in the other side.

“Seriously though, what’s your secret?” she said as she put the key in the ignition. Cain pulled a cigarette from his pack and held it up, his eyebrows raised, and looked at her. She leaned over to the glove box, got out a lighter and handed it to him.

“Pretty simple actually,” he said as he bent over the lighter, his hands cupped around it. “I figured out what was making me fat and I stopped eating it. A steady diet of Xanex and Sunny D helped too.”

She started to put the car in “Drive”, then flipped it back up and turned to him.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m clean now. Mostly.”

She nodded knowingly, and pulled out of the Passenger Pick-up lane at Logan and onto the highway. Cain had never been to this airport before. He had always flown in and out of LaGuardia. The times he had actually come home, that is.

“When was the last time you talked to her,” Penny asked as she flipped through stations on Syrius.

“Couple months ago.”

“How was she then?”

“I don’t know. Okay, I guess.”

“Or not,” Penny looked at him, then back to the road.

“Yeah. Or not.” Cain replied. He pulled his money clip from his jeans pocket and counted. $500. Enough to get a motel and meals for a few days until he made his decision.

“Well, I can put you up for a day or two. Mitzy gets back on Wednesday,” Penny said.

“I’ll be outta your hair tomorrow, I want to get on the road. And give you the chance to get rid of any trace of me. I don’t think your significant other would take kindly to even knowing I was here.”

Penny nodded. She had sent Cain quite a few letters when she was at Emerson. The one where she had finally owned up to her sexual orientation really came as no surprise. At the time, the two of them were on the way to mending their relationship that ended with his drunken rage and subsequent departure from the state and her checking into rehab in the first place. And it was no small order to admit to yourself and to the world that you like girls better than boys when you’re the daughter of a Lutheran deacon. It explained why the two had gotten along so well in every endeavor other than addiction and sex. When they were both drinking, they verbally fought to the death. She attacked his petty crimes and wannabe Irish mafia friends. He crucified her for her abundantly promiscuous past. When they were in the middle of sex, he gave it the old college try on a belly full of Jameson and Killians. Meanwhile, her coital demeanor said she was mentally making a grocery list and wondering if she left the oven on.

When they got to her duplex, Penny unlocked the door while Cain shifted nervously looking down both sides of the street. Inside, he put his backpack by the front door as Penny headed towards the bathroom.

“Anything to drink?” he called to her.

“In the fridge,” she said and closed the door. Cain took off his jacket and laid it on top of recliner. He went into the spotless kitchen, took a glass from one of three neatly placed rows in a cupboard, and opened the refrigerator. Pulling a can of Coke from the bottom shelf, he opened the freezer to look for ice. As he got a handful of cubes from the bin, a bottle neck caught his eye. He pulled out a sealed fifth of Absolut at the moment Penny came into the kitchen, the toilet recovering from a flush behind her.

“If you had given me a little more notice I could have –“

She stopped when she saw him looking over the bottle, then at her.

“Mostly,” she said, echoing him. It was his turn to give her a prolonged look in the eyes.

“How long has it been?”

“Four months, 3 weeks, 6 days,” She said as she took the bottle out of his hands and put it back in the freezer.

“And the relapse?”

“One night. Mitzy and I had a fight,” she said matter-of-factly and retrieved her own soda from the refrigerator. “You know me, Cain. I just can’t throw anything away.”

He smiled. “It’s good to see you,” he said.

“You too.”

——

Guns ‘N’ Roses “Paradise City” blared from the rental car stereo as Cain came up the roundabout driveway. The transmission of the Nissan Altima sputtered for a few seconds, then died.

“Thrifty, indeed,” Cain said and pulled the key from the ignition.

Trees batted against the house in the strong wind. Cain zipped up his jacket and climbed the two long cobblestone stairways until he stood in front of the house. Blue paint chips riddled the last five wooden stairs to the small front porch. Two large stone pots with rotten stems sat on either side. A storm door lay in the shrubs, almost covered with leaves, on the side of the stairs and hinges appeared to be halfway toward being totally ripped from the wooden frame. Cain looked at the storm door, then at the front windows on either side of the door. The shades were drawn inside all of them, with a large jagged hole in one where someone had presumably thrown a rock into his parents’ living room. He started up the last stairs, paused, then backed off and slowly walked along the dirt path around the house.

He couldn’t go in. Not yet.

A dirt path led around the house to a back yard three times the size the front. In one corner stood the herb garden, partitioned off with waste-high chicken wire. In the center, the fire pit had been robbed of any remaining wood or kindling. In another corner was what was left of his father’s restored stone BBQ pit. The gas grill was firmly embedded, but the grill had been gutted of the grates, propane tanks and everything else. He walked over to the fire pit, kicked one of the surrounding rocks into the middle, then turned and surveyed the back of the house. Unlike the windows in front, the windows on the back of the house were all shattered, the drapes instead all ripped away. The large, varnished wooden deck, the place where his family had spent summer evenings having dinner and playing Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble, was literally on its last legs. Most of the support beams were rotting and he could see a big gaping whole near the back door from where he stood in the yard below. The steps on the long set of stairs going up to the deck were simply missing. . Absorbing the whole scene, Cain concluded that his sister must have stopped any type of maintenance on the house a long time ago. Below the deck, what was once a big stack of firewood had been reduced to a couple thin strips on the bottom row. Beside it was the door that led down into the cellar.

It was wide open.

Cain walked toward it, trying to see into the cellar but could make out nothing in the darkness. He descended down the enclosed stairway which was almost totally packed with leaves. As he did, he halted when he heard newspapers rustle inside the cellar, then silence.

He pulled his small Stihl blade from his back pocket, then stepped down the first two stairs.

Inside the cellar, he could barely see a long row of canning jars filled with all kinds of fruit against one wall. Behind and beside all the jars were stacks upon stacks of old, yellow newspapers. On top of those were wooden crates filled with God-knows-what. As he climbed down the third and last stair in front of the open door and his eyes started to adjust to the darkness, one of the crates fell to the concrete floor with a loud Crack! Something ran past him, the weight of which knocked him off balance and to his knees. Once at the top of the stairs Cain had just went down, two rats the size of cocker spaniels turned and squealed angrily at him, then ran off into the yard.

Cain let out the breath he realized he had been holding for at least a minute, then collapsed his knife and put it back into his pocket. Climbing the stairs again, he went back to the fire pit and sat on one of the stone benches. Sliding his hands in his pockets, he looked up at the rapidly fleeting canopy cast by the trees all around the yard, the leaves on the branches being blown back into the forest beyond the yard. Out of the bushes at the edge of the yard, a rabbit came trotting over to the pit. Seeing Cain, he slowly and sporadically trotted over, his nose and ears darting this way and that.

“Nothing in there, little guy,” Cain said as he looked back to the house, then turned his gaze to the sky. “Nothing at all.”

The Back Forty, Ch. 1: Sabbatical

Mary Anne's house

“Can I get a large pumpkin spice latte please?” he said as he pulled out his wallet.

“Do you mean a tall?” The girl behind the counter seemed more interested in her fingernails than his order. He closed his eyes, sighed, then looked at her.

“You have three sizes, right?”

She seemed startled at his question. “Um, yes.”

“One of them is the smallest size, ones a little a bigger and ones the biggest right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Give me a pumpkin spice latte in that biggest size.”

“You mean a venti?”

He took another deep breath. Sometimes all the morning meditation in the world didn’t work when speaking to minimum wage. “Yes, a venti.”

As the girl set about making the espresso, Cain deflated a little. He slumped over the counter and rested his forearm on the espresso machine and his chin on his forearm. At the plate glass window at the front of the Starbucks, a couple sat across from each other. As they sipped coffee, they flipped through a Fodor’s New England travel guide, pausing at the pages that had the most striking colored foliage. On the floor next to the table, a little girl braided a doll’s hair. She was talking softly to the doll when she seemed to sense Cain looking at her. She glanced over at him and smiled. Cain waved at her with his pinky finger 3 times. The little girl smiled at him a moment longer and went back to her hair styling.

“$6.75” said Minimum Wage.

Cain pulled cash from his wallet and put in on the counter. Dropping his change in his pocket, he shouldered his backpack and looked around for a place to sit. Instinctively, he sat in a chair in the corner at a table in the back of the coffee shop. Even at the Starbucks at O’Hare International, one could never be too careful about who might pass by and recognize him. He took a long sip from his drink, barely noticing how scalding hot it was. At least October still had pumpkin spiced lattes going for it, he thought, and immediately chastised himself for his bitterness.

That’s not true at all. October used to be your favorite month, he thought to himself. And it probably will be again. Just not this October. No, certainly not this time.

As he settled in to his seat, he pulled his e-cigarette from his pocket and took a big drag as he opened the Sunday New York Times he had plopped on the table. How had the George Carlin bit gone? You could probably beat a flight attendant to death with the Sunday Times if you really wanted to. Something like that. He smiled gently as he flipped through the paper looking for a weather report. Not that weather would matter much. He had packed his two bags, the backpack and the TSA-approved bag that fit in the overhead (he hated checking bags) hastily before he left his apartment. He was wearing his black leather jacket and he thought he had packed at least one of his three black hoodies. At least, he hoped he had. Fall in New England can get real cold real quick. Besides, it was difficult to focus on packing after you walk in on your girlfriend banging your neighbor. As if on cue, his smart phone rang. “Kalina work”, the screen said. A third sigh. Deeper than the other two. The deepest one yet. He swiped the screen and held the phone to his ear. For a moment, there was nothing but silence.

“Look, I can explain,” she said. On his list of Stupidest Things to Say to a Boyfriend/Girlfriend when they catch you with someone else, that one had to be in the top three. He knew. He had tried it himself a couple times. It ranked below, if not on par, with “It meant nothing” and “Please don’t let this come between us.”

“You said that before. Nothing to explain, Gorgeous.” He used one of her pet names for him on purpose. He sipped his coffee. “I’m leaving for a while.”

“Please, just come over so we can talk about this,” she said.

“Talk about it,” he said and dragged on his e-cig. “What exactly do you want to talk about? If it’s the color of his boxers or what kind of condom he was wearing, I’m really not interested.” He was amazed at how steady his voice was given the fact that he knew somewhere, deep down, he wanted to chuck the phone against the wall and return to his paper. And, at any rate, he knew the boxers were a blue plaid number. He had inadvertently kicked them aside as he came through the door to surprise her. He had told her he had to go Milwaukee for the weekend to meet with a vendor there. Instead, he had unlocked her front door as quietly as he could and walked in on her on her sofa with his across-the-hall neighbor she met at the neighbor’s party last Christmas. Instantly, he remembered the times he was in her position at similar moments. So this is what it felt like to be the cheater and not the cheatee, he thought. For a few seconds, he didn’t breath. Her eyes had met his and she started a stammering, trying to say something. Exhaling the last of the breath in his lungs, he had calmly walked over to the coffee table in the middle of the room and put down the purple envelope and the cactus with a purple bow tied around the pot. When he walked back to the door, Kalina finally broke out of her stammering spell and blurted out “Wait! I can explain!” as he closed the door behind him. A voice on the intercom announced the last boarding call for American Airlines flight 383 to Atlanta.

“Are you at the airport?” she said, her voice now shaky.

“Yep,” he said and turned the paper back to the front page. Next to the story Teen Killed in Wooded Area Outside Boston was the headline Second Ebola Case reported in Texas.

“Baby please, just … come home. We can work this out.” Damn. He had forgotten about that one. It seemed she was following the cheating playbook page by page. He thought about when he had sent her that text message a year ago. She had started the chain by saying that she didn’t know he liked black girls. He had replied that she was smart and funny and that’s what he liked about her, that she could have been a smurf for all he cared. That made her laugh and she texted so. He had asked her out that day.

“I’m going home. I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he said, ignoring her appeal. “I’ll see ya.” He ended the call. Now he needed a real cigarette. He slung his backpack on, picked up his coffee and left the Starbucks, searching around for the nearest door outside. As the automatic door slid shut behind him, he thanked God that he had decided to stay on this side of the security checkpoint. Not only because it provided him with one more chance to have a real smoke, but also because he was dreading having to deal with the largely miserable rent-a-cops that comprise the Transportation Security Administration. He fished around in his jacket for his pack of Winstons. As he pulled the pack out of his pocket, a photo came out with it and fell to the ground. He bent over, picked it up, and stared at it, forgetting for the moment to light his smoke. Cain didn’t know when the photo was taken or even who took it. He had found it in a box as he unpacked in his new apartment a couple years prior. Whenever it was taken, the house he had grown up in looked abandoned.

“Like it is now,” he said to himself and lit his cigarette. Like he felt now. Abandoned for the new gorgeous guy Kalina was now duping. It was 8:45 AM and he already wanted a beer. Maybe with a shot-and-beer chaser.

“Yeah, that’d be a good idea,” he said to himself and exhaled. “That would be just what the doctor ordered.” He decided he would wait until the sun went behind the yard arm, as Tragic would say. He put the photo back into his pocket and looked out onto the cars pulling into and out of O’Hare like an explorer surveying the approaching coastline as his ship slid ashore. He would wait until he knew what happened to his sister.