Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia. She received her MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and currently teaches writing and literature. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, Willow Springs Review, Flashquake, and other literary journals. Natalie's writing has received several awards, including the 2009 West Virginia Fiction Award and the 2009 Betty Gabehart Prize. She is also the winner of the 2012 Glimmer Train New Writers Contest. Natalie serves as a literary editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers and is co-host of SummerBooks: A Literary Podcast.
Rachel took the steps slowly, trying not to make a sound or jostle too much. It must have been a noise from downstairs that woke her and moved her from her bed, although she couldn't specifically remember hearing anything like a thump or a door thwacking shut. As she reached the bottom of the staircase, though, she did hear something that sounded like a boot scraping the hard wood floor, and then a breath.
She was alone in the house, Chris having gone off early to work. He'd offered to stay with her, but she'd had her fill of his flittering and questioning her every grumble and sigh. Bed rest was another way to say “trap” and “torture”. No one had bothered to explain her “condition” to her. Or, if they had, she hadn't heard them. The doctor'd had that fake cheerful look and that scared her. Then there were the red words: “precaution” and “complications” and “premature." hris had made trip after trip to Target, buying new pillows and comforters and magazines. He practically built her a soft, dark cave with down and cotton and black out curtains where she would essentially spend the next six to seven weeks of her life. The last thing he'd said before leaving that morning was, “Rachel, be careful.”
She should be scared. She should be protecting her baby and heading out the front door instead of slowly, quietly into the kitchen.
She saw feet before anything else, heavy work boots just like Chris's that could have belonged to almost any man or boy in the county, then the rest of the boy who was just standing there, arms at his sides and boots making muddy puddles on the floor. He was wearing one of those brown Carhart jackets that they all wore, but his looked too big, baggy like it belonged to someone else. He didn't have a hat on, but his thick dark hair looked mussed, like he'd just taken one off. His cheeks were red from the cold and Rachel knew that if she touched them, they'd feel soft and hot and cold and painful all at once. It was Andy Chiles. Of course.
Andy's eyes flicked, left, right, up, like a scared animal that'd been caught and was trying to figure out, quick, how to get away. His eyes flicked over her then, her thin nightgown, her grossly huge stomach, her bare feet on that cold floor.
Rachel couldn't make anything move. Not her mouth, feet, or even hands. No scream or question would come. All she could do was look at him and zero in on small sections of his face, his body, like her eyes were on a tight camera zoom.
Rachel saw Andy's mouth move as though he wanted to say something, and she knew it'd be an apology or an explanation. She willed him to keep it shut.
Just then the kitchen wall clock chimed to signal 3 o'clock. When their heads automatically turned towards the noise, whatever spell there'd been was broken. Andy, freed from what had been holding him, bolted from the kitchen. He hit the old screen door so hard that the top hinge snapped, leaving the door hanging and banging, broken and awkward.
When Rachel finally felt as though her mouth would work again, she was surprised that it wasn't to scream or reach for the phone and call the police, but to shout, “Stop, Andy,” and
Even if she'd known how, there was no way to fix the door, so she left it hanging, and the other one open, letting in the still cold March air. Suddenly walking across the kitchen to shut it seemed impossible. She'd have to make it back upstairs, though, and all she wanted was the bed, warm from the electric blanket, and the quietness of the dark room.
It had been slow going, one step at a time, leaning heavily on the railing to support herself. She didn't feel as though she could breathe again until she was in her bed, under the thick blankets, and felt the baby poking at her insides. She put her hand under her nightgown and against her own stretched, foreign feeling skin to better know. How stupid of her to go down those stairs to risk so much, for that moment there with Andy Chiles.
For the first few months, the baby had felt like an intruder, something unwelcomed and hazardous living inside her. When she shut her eyes and pictured the baby, then it was a churning dark mass, cloudy, with a pulsating and angry red heart. Chris had always talked about the baby like it was a real person, already someone living and breathing in their lives. He even nicknamed it “Tot” and would talk into her bellybutton like it was a direct line to the baby's ear. Rachel had only been able to think of it abstractly—the baby. Lately, though, things had started to change and the image was pinker, soft focused, a living thing that she actually wanted, and that was when it got really scary. Dangerous in that wanting.
Pulling the covers over her head, she thought about the first time she'd seen Andy. It was just the second week of school, her second week as a teacher in this town where she really knew no one except her husband and a small group of his friends, who were nice, but who all still regarded her with veiled suspicion and mistrust. Chris had been born and raised in Warm, left only for a few years before coming home to take over the family lumber business. Almost no one new ever moved in. People only left and came back.
Rachel was on outside recess duty with Hazel, the only other youngish teacher at the school. She was walking the length of the gravel lot, watching the fourth and fifth grade boys play basketball at the old, rusty hoop when she noticed the group across the street, clearly cutting school. That they would do it so blatantly had shocked her. Shouldn't they at least get out of shouting distance before lighting their cigarettes? Most of the boys were older, like Andy, and from the high school next door. When she looked harder, she recognized at least two boys who went to the elementary school and were supposed to be on the playground with her. One of those boys was Cubby House and the other was Solomon Chiles, Andy's little brother.
“Leave it be,” Hazel cautioned her. “It's not worth the trouble.” Rachel couldn't, though. She still felt like she had to prove herself at the school, the town, and couldn't let these kids walk all over her.
They saw her coming and watched as she crossed the street. She watched them watch her and tried not to lose her nerve. These were boys, none of them more than 15 or 16.
“You boys there, I want to talk to you.”
Solomon pointed at himself and tried to look innocent. In his hand he had a big brown paper bag, like the kind they give at the grocery story. The top was all folded down and there was some kind of greasy stain in the bottom corner. It was his lunch, maybe, or something that she didn't want to know about.
“Why aren't you boys in school?” Her voice wasn't as strong as she'd hoped it'd be.
They glanced at each other and Andy took a long drag on his cigarette.
“We ain't doing nothing to you, teacher,” he said. “We ain't over there. You leave us be.”
“I won't,” she said and took a couple steps closer. “Now you listen her—”
“No, you listen,” Andy, came to her, so quick she couldn't believe it, quick like some sort of animal or like wind. “Let it be.” He was in her face, so close that she could have hugged him or slapped him, but she couldn't even breathe. His eyes were there, looking right in to her.
“Mind your own.”
“Yeah,” said Solomon, close behind Andy. He was holding a dirty looking cigarette in his teeth and talked around it. “Mind your own bees-wax, teacher.”
“Shut up, Solomon,” Andy said, but didn't take his eyes from Rachel's.
“Why do you even bother?” She was embarrassed by the squeak her voice made.
“Why do you?” He squinted at her then, just a little, just enough to make her feel like he'd somehow jumped in to her body, rooted around a little, then jumped right back out, knowing something. “You should go on back over there,” he said. “Bell's about to ring.”
Rachel felt dismissed, like she was the child and Andy the adult. A couple of the other older boys were snickering behind them.
“Go on now,” Andy said, then turned back to his friends.
She was in over her head, she realized, and these were boys she didn't know how to understand. She didn't want it to seem like she was running away, but knew now that there was nothing she could do to get the boys back across the street and into the school. Hazel had known that all along. When she looked back over at the school yard, she saw Hazel there, looking at Rachel with that “I told you so” look on her face.
“Go back to school,” she said, but heard the half-heartedness in her own voice. She turned away from the boys and started back towards the playground.
First she felt a hit, but then felt the burn. It wasn't so bad as to hurt right away; more like a mosquito bite, or a jumped spark from a fire. She glanced down and saw the cigarette in the grass, still smoking a little. Solomon had flicked it at her, and when she turned, she saw that his brother had pushed him to the ground and was kicking him.
“Stop it, Andy, stop it!” Solomon was crying a little, but the kicks weren't hard. Andy didn't seem to have his heart in it.
Rachel didn't care about pride now, and walked as quickly as she could without running towards the school.
“Stay down,” she heard Andy say. “Just stay down.”
She'd thought momentarily that afternoon about taking some disciplinary action against Solomon, going to the principal or even trying to punish him herself when he came back to school, but when she thought of Andy's expression when he'd told her to go back, and the way he'd kicked his little brother, she decided not to.
After the day with the cigarette, she saw Andy everywhere. It wasn't really as though he'd been following her, but that now she was noticing him. Not big, but strong looking. Ruddy cheeks. Hair always a little messy, but shiny and dark. Either 15 or 16, she wasn't sure, but in the tenth grade. She'd see him some mornings getting off the bus with the other holler kids. Other times, she'd see him and Solomon piling into or out of their father's old truck. During recess she'd see Andy across the street, sitting on the ground and looking over at the playground. It seemed like every time Rachel saw him, he was watching her too. Looking right in.
His attention scared her a little at first, but then she got used to it. Maybe even liked it, though she would never admit that to herself.
She'd once been a dancer, a good one who had been featured in college productions and performed with some very small regional companies. She was never good enough to dance full time professionally, but was smart enough to know this early on. There was a feeling she used to get when she was on stage, especially when she was alone there in the hot light from the spot. The feeling was of being watched, of hundreds of eyes trained right on her and seeing, really seeing, every spinning bit. Chris loved her, she knew, but Rachel had never had that electric and truly alive feeling anywhere other than on stage, until that fall.
Even as her stomach grew and grew, as her face filled out and she didn't feel pretty anymore, Andy still was there, watching her with a look that wasn't quite anything. Wasn't love or anger or lust or hatred. He'd just be there, looking, and studying her.
Once, when she'd escaped her classroom to a secret corner of the courtyard, he'd been there too. Before “the baby”, she would have been sneaking a cigarette, but now could only take the moments for a few long breaths before returning back to her third grade class. At least once a day she'd feel the chalk start to crack as she wrote on the chalkboard, splintering under the pressure; or, her chest would get tight as the air was sucked out of the room by the tiny lungs of 26 needy children. When she started seeing her class the enemy, she'd assign a “Tiny Teacher” to watch the class. There were two or three goody-goodies, tattle tales, who loved the opportunity to be in charge. She told the kids that the “Tiny Teacher” exercise was to teach them responsibility, but she didn't know if they believed her. Before coming to Warm, she'd thought kids were stupid. Easily fooled. But these kids knew things. Some of them were born ancient and watched her like she was dangerous.
On that particular day, a Thursday in September, they'd been having a spelling bee and Tommy Childers peed his pants in front of the entire class. Rachel first saw the look on his face. Confused, maybe, or surprised, and then she saw the dark spot spreading like ink on the front of her jeans. He didn't grab at it like Rachel'd thought he might, or try to cover it. He just looked down, then threw both hands up in the air, as if his own body had become contagious.
“Jesus Christ!” Rachel said, before catching herself. Some of the kids had started to snicker. Tommy was small, pale, and toe-headed with dark purple rings under his eyes like he never got enough sleep. Rachel knew she should feel sorry for him, want to give him a hug to ease his embarrassment, but she was only angry.
“Luce, Tiny Teacher!” she said, so suddenly that she'd made the little dark hair girl jump. She took Tommy by the shoulders and steered him out the door.
“Office,” she told him. “Go see the nurse.”
Probably, she should have gone with him, but instead she gave him a little push, then turned and went directly out the fire exit into the courtyard and her secret corner.
She laid her head back against the scratchy wall, wondering again how she'd found herself in this place, inexplicably in charge of children. It was then that she heard feet shuffling in the gravel and realized that she wasn't alone. Andy Chiles, wearing those holey blue jeans and brown work boots.
“What are you doing out here?” Rachel asked.
“Same as you, I reckon,” he said. She thought at first that he meant hiding, but then he motioned with the cigarette in his hand. “Need one?”
“I can't,” she said, but suddenly wanted it so badly that she could nearly taste the bitter in her mouth. “Just one drag,” she said then. “But you cannot tell anyone. If you do, I'll deny it and you'll be a liar.”
Andy shrugged and came to her. He started to reach into his back pocket, then looked at her, right in the eyes, and held out his own nasty, half burned out cigarette to her.
“I ain't got too many,” he said, pushing it at her, almost like a dare.
Rachel stared at the cigarette, sad and smoking between then, and she thought how it would be to put that end, wet from Andy's spit, would be in her mouth. Every bit of this was so wrong. She reached for the cigarette, but just as her fingers touched Andy's, a strange sensation, a vibrating, started at her feet. She felt unbalanced and put her hand back against the wall to steady herself. Rachel thought at first that it was only her, but then saw Andy's wide eyes and knew he felt it too. He dropped the cigarette and grabbed her hand.
The shaking lasted only a second, followed by another second of absolute silence, then slamming doors, the sounds of kids in the halls, and someone pulled a fire alarm.
“Holy shit,” Andy said, still holding her hand. “Was that an earthquake?”
“Go,” Rachel said and pulled her hand away. Kids were going to be coming out the door, assembly like the did for fire drills. “Hurry! Go!”
She slipped back in the door just in time to see Luce's dark head poling out the classroom door.
It had been an earthquake. A very minor one, the first anyone around could ever remember feeling in West Virginia. Some said it was from the natural gas drilling that had recently started full force in their county and most of the surrounding ones. Other said it was just some geologic shift, and that they happened in the region all the time, just weren't normally strong enough to feel. Everyone seemed to agree that it was something special, something you didn't get to feel every day.
Maybe that was why she hadn't been completely shocked when she saw Andy in her kitchen. For months, even before the earthquake, it had seemed like she and Andy were orbiting one another, sometimes getting closer and other times further away, but somehow tied together. Perhaps it had only been a matter of time until Andy was drawn back to her and into her house.
Rachel heard Chris on the steps, his feet pounding fast. She could feel the panic, even before she heard him call her name, and then push through the door.
“Rachel,” he said again when he saw her, huge under the massive pile of blankets. “Are you okay?” Before she could stop it, a sob escaped, surprising her and bringing him quickly to her side.
“Chris!” The emotion was so sudden, so unexpected that she felt she couldn't catch her breath. She was grasping at him, pulling him closer to her, in spite of his muddy boots and pants, the smell of outside and trees and sawdust and cut wood. “Chris, someone was in the house.”
“The door was standing wide open. I didn't know—I saw—” He didn't seem to be able to finish. The horrible things he must have thought. Her gone. Their baby, gone. He was fully in the bed now, holding her tight and kissing her head and face. He wouldn't admit to being scared, she couldn't hear him saying that, but it was pouring out.
“Are you okay?” he said finally, after she'd managed to push her sobs into whimpers.
“Did someone hurt you?”
“No one hurt me,” she said softly into his shirt, wet already from her crying. “I'm okay.”
She found the wettest place and pressed her cheek there, wanting to feel that cold against her burning skin.
She told him a version of the story, one that didn't have her going downstairs until after whoever had been there was gone. One that left out names and descriptions, any knowledge of who had been in her house. He wanted to call the police, but she begged him not to, please, don't, because she couldn't face all those people, not in her bedroom, and she didn't think she could make it up and down the stairs again. “I just want to forget about it, Chris. Please.” He finally agreed, and then went downstairs to try and fix the broken door.
He didn't want to leave her the next morning, and at first he'd completely refused. “They can do without me today,” he said, but she was full of reasons why he needed to go into work, including the fact that he'd just fuss over her all day, and she was so exhausted.
“Maybe you can come home a little early,” she said, watching as he angrily pulled on his clothes. “Honestly, I'll be fine. I just want to lay here in the dark and sleep.”
“Rachel, I really think—”
“What are the chances someone would come in two days in a row? Go. Please.”
He finally relented, but only after bringing his hunting rifle in out of the spare room where he kept all of his guns. This was the one he'd take out into the woods in November where he'd sit for house in tree and wait for some animal to shoot. Never in her life had she thought that she'd marry a man who might come home smelling like blood and the inside of once living things. Just looking at the gun made her cringe.
“Chris, no,” she said.
“Just in case,” he said. He leaned the gun up against the wall next to the bed. “Please, Rachel. Okay? It will make me feel better.”
She wanted to ask who it was he was really worried about—her or the baby. Was the gun so that she could protect herself, or so that she could act like some wild west heroine, her and the bullets the only thing standing between his baby and some maniac.
She nodded a little and he kissed her forehead. “If you hear anything—anything at all—you call me. Understand?” Rachel nodded and let him kiss her again, but knew, deep down, that if she heard someone in her house again, she wouldn't pick up the phone.
Rachel didn't go back to sleep, but lay in the bed, staring at the gun. In waves, she hated this house. This place. Herself in it. In waves she felt like she should run away now, before the baby was born here and became one of these boys, then one of these men.
The boys in town respected Chris, she knew. He had a good job. Made enough money to have a house and a nice truck. He'd gone to school. He could have stayed gone, but he didn't and that made them love him even more. Through his business, he gave what he could to the food pantries and churches, bought kids winter coats, and sponsored a little league team, just as his family had one for years. Because he was one of their own, people allowed the charity, most didn't hold it against him. Even if they didn't completely understand or trust her, Chris had picked her and that made her a little bit worthy.
Maybe this is why Andy had been in their house. He'd just wanted to see inside, or was even bringing her something, like a “Get Well Soon” card, but then she'd startled him and he ran away. And this is how she justified not telling her husband the whole story, pretending that she hadn't seen the boy in her kitchen, that the intruder was unknown and worthy of a shotgun. She'd let him believe that this was what she was afraid of.
She could convince herself of this until she heard the unmistakable sounds of things being moved around in the kitchen. Clatter and crashes and drawers. This time, there was no delicacy or secrecy.
She only grabbed the rifle on second thought, knowing she'd never use it, but wanting it in her hand.
She went faster than she should down the stairs, and didn't bother trying to be quiet like before. The noise from the kitchen would hide any noise from her.
She first saw the back of a thick set boy with greasy hair. He was in the silverware drawer, pushing around the knives and forks and making most of the noise. Rachel guessed that he was looking for real silver, but he wouldn't find any in there. The only real they had was her great-grandmother's set and that was in the china cupboard in the dining room. They'd never had occasion to use it since she'd brought it here.
Then she saw Andy, who'd been bent down, rummaging through the drawers in the kitchen island. What he thought he'd find there, she didn't know. Maybe they'd heard some rumor about there being money in the house. These boys, these brats, were here to rob them.
Andy Chiles, stealing from her. Betraying her.
“Andy Chiles,” she said in her best school teacher voice.
“Fuck, Chiles! I thought you said nobody'd be home!” The fat boy, who she now saw was Carmine Greaser, another holler boy and all around bully, was so surprised to see her that he slammed shut the drawer onto his own fingers.
“God-damn it sons a bitch!”
“Shut up, Carmine,” Andy said. He was looking right at her, his icy eyes digging holes.
“You knew I'd be here,” she said and he shrugged, maybe the corner of his mouth started to turn up into a smile, or maybe it was a twitch. Either way, it sent a chill through Rachel and she thought maybe she did have something real and in this house to be afraid of. Maybe, again, she'd gotten this all wrong.
She'd forgotten until that moment about Chris's rifle that was dangling at her side like a loose extension of her arm. The boys hadn't seen it either, she realized as she watched Andy's eyes go round with fear as she raised the gun and leveled it at his head.
“She's got a gun! Andy! She's got a fucking gun!” Carmine took off then, bolting towards the door. He wasn't fast, more like some king of lumbering grizzly bear, and any kind of shooter could have easily hit him with little effort. Rachel thought about Chris and the way he'd shot dozens, maybe hundreds, of deer moving faster than Carmine Greaser right now. Who would blame her for shooting him—both boys—to protect herself and her baby?
Andy picked up the heavy crystal bowl from the counter and raised it up over his head. It was the only really pretty thing in the room and it was Chris's, passed down through generations of Reed women and then to him since he had no sisters. It was ornate and brilliant and the light refracted and bounced off every cut edge.
“Andy,” she said. “Andy, please don't. Please.” He looked crazy, panicked, and she wondered if that's how she looked to him, but holding something even scarier.
She saw his mouth set and before his arms moved, she knew. She knew that he was throwing the bowl at her. It was so heavy and would break against her skull. Rachel took one deep breath in, and then heard the gun fire. The kick pushed the gun butt up hard and fast into her face and she tasted blood. As the gun clattered to the floor, she heard the unmistakable shattering sound of the bowl hitting linoleum.
Andy made a small sound, a tiny noise, a cry or an intake. Something painful, and when she looked up at him, she saw the shocked look on his face. The bowl was shattered in a million, billion pieces at his feet. For a moment, Rachel thought that she has shot him, was waiting for the wet, red bloom of red to spread across the front of his white t-shirt. Andy must have thought so too, as his hands searched his chest, stomach, shoulders for a wound. Finding none, he doubled over and threw up.
Rachel dropped the gun, then sunk down on the floor beside it, feeling lightheaded and sick.
“I'm sorry,” she said, slumping back against the door frame. 'Killed him, killed him' was going around in her head.
“I puked on your bowl,” Andy said, his voice sounding far way. Rachel wanted to laugh. Nothing in that pile of glass would ever resemble a bowl again.
“Here,” Andy said. He was standing over Rachel, holding out a dishtowel. “You're bleeding.”
Rachel took the towel and pressed it to her busted mouth.
“I wasn't going to throw it at you,” he said, staring down at her, unmistakably disappointed. “I wouldn't of hurt you for all the world.”
Rachel nodded a little, laid her head back against the door frame and shut her eyes.
She listened as Andy opened the closet door, got out a broom, cleaned up his vomit and the glass. She listened as he shut all the drawers Carmine had opened before he ran away. She heard the screen door open, and thought to say something—maybe apologize again, maybe to ask him to come back, but then he was gone and neither of them had said a word.
Rachel felt a hard poke from the baby, and then another one.
“Shhh,” she said, rubbing her stomach, gently patting the spot where she imagined the baby's little head.
When Chris comes home, he finds her there, waiting, the blood from her mouth drying on her chin and spread lovingly over the huge expanse of her belly. She has a lie by then, one that somehow gives no one blame, and doesn't mention Andy Chiles' name. An accident. A paranoid city woman. Chris grabs her arm and she does not sob.
A piece of the crystal bowl had escaped Andy's broom and landed near her. The late afternoon sunlight comes through the small window over the sink, hits the shard just right to send little prisms sparkling and broken around the kitchen and over Rachel. She holds up her hand, watches the tiny, fractured rainbows shimmer on her palm, and laughs at her own misunderstandings.