Little Fishes

by

“Put you in the piss tank and flush you too!”

Mandy. Five years old, half awake. She stands in the kitchen in her cloud-print PJs, curly brown hair bunched up on one side.

Gramma Jean at the table lights a Kool. “What did she say?”

“Piss tank,” says Pete by window. He’s twelve, dark-haired like his dad but has the Kolnik-side gray-green eyes. Outside, the February sky has just started to lighten. He can make out the tree line, the snow-covered pastures, the beef barn.

“She ain’t said that in a while,” he says. “Nightmare, I guess.” When he turns, his sister is scowling at the floor.

“Who were you talking to, honey?” asks Gramma. “I think you’re still sleeping. She tilts in her chair and pulls Mandy toward her.” The girl puts her forehead to Gramma’s fat shoulder like she is trying to tip her over—or force her back to her own house.

Pete checks the weather app on his phone. “S’posed to warm up. More than yesterday even. Like fifty.”

“Good,” says Gramma. “Enough with the storms and the deepfreeze. Your daddy’s snowman still down by the woods like some peekaboo thug.” She rakes her fingers through Mandy’s tangles. Her own hair is silk-straight with a few strands of gray at the temples.

“Go back to bed, Mandy,” says Pete. “It’s Saturday. Unless you want to do my chores.”

“I’ll take her upstairs,” says Gramma. She stubs out her cigarette, pushes up with a grunt. She wears a green sweatshirt from Spoon Lake Casino and the pink long johns she sleeps in. “Petey, oatmeal’s ready.”

He eats at the counter where the coffeemaker sat. The eight-cup Krups with the milk frother feature. The Krups is buried under snow in the yard. The Latteccino 2-in-1. He remembers the ad from the Kohl’s catalog his mother taped to the fridge way back in November, waiting for the perfect sale.

Pete texts his friend Arlo from school. The Kramers live in Beamer ten miles away. They moved to the area a year ago from Milwaukee. Dentist dad, realtor mom. They have a cedar-wood deck and a view of the lake. Arlo has had three different phones since they moved here. Nice ones. One he dropped over the side of boat when his family went sailing on Lake Michigan.

An unopened bag of coffee beans sits beside the toaster. It escaped the fate of the Krups and the grinder. Gevalia Kaffe. The package is egg yolk yellow and shiny-tight. Looks out of place on the cracked laminate between the dented toaster and empty Ball jars. Like it was ordered for a holiday no one here celebrates.

 

*     *     *

 

Two months before, the sale Cathy had been waiting for coincided with the first winter storm of the season at the start of Christmas break.

When she and Pete dropped Mandy at Gramma’s, the late-morning sky was already gloomy and the air had a bite of dampness. No pending blizzard was going to stop his mother once she’d made up her mind. Or a stuck car horn that set off for some reason halfway to Kelton. Like all the forces of the universe were against them. Cathy tuned the radio to an oldies rock station and turned the volume high enough to almost drown it out.

Sleet flew at the windshield, and the blacktop started to whiten. Pete played Limbo on his battered PlayStation, doing worse and worse each game. Coming into Kelton, Cathy switched off the radio and shouted over the wail of the horn: “You won’t have to bug us for a phone anymore! Target’s got a sale! It’ll be for your birthday and Christmas!”

Their car drew stares in the Kohl’s parking lot, since the horn did not turn off with the engine. Like his mother, Pete pretended nothing was wrong. Buying the Krups took no time at all. What took longer was Cathy’s flirty conversation with a tall blond man shopping for space heaters. She introduced him to Pete as Doug Duken, someone she worked with at Hayworth Insurance. Pete had rarely seen her so bubbly.

While they waited to get the car horn fixed, they ate at Taco John’s across the highway and watched the driving snow. They stopped at Petco to pick up Mandy’s Christmas present. A three-gallon aquarium and accessories. The fish would have to be a later purchase, but they looked at what the store carried. Glowlight tetras, clownfish, some brown, crispy-looking sea horses. Mandy’s tank was for cold water fish like the tetras.

At Target, finally, Pete chose his phone from the sale selections while Cathy stood by, tapping her credit card on the glass display case and sighing repeatedly. That she put the gift in her bag after purchase meant that Pete would have to wait until Christmas to get it.

She said nothing on the drive home. Flying, swirling white all around. Steady on, she cut down the middle of the road. Occasional vehicles bloomed into view, then glided past as Cathy inched over.

 

*     *     *

 

“Lyle asleep yet?” Pete asks, rinsing his bowl in the sink. Outside, a band of pinkish yellow grows above the hills. The snow on the pastures has a purple tint.

Gramma Jean doesn’t answer. He knows she doesn’t like “reporting” on her son.

“I heard him bumping around all night. No wonder Mandy got nightmares.”

“Eaves are dripping,” she says, coming up beside him. She has a scalpy smell Cathy used to mention. “If the temperature crashes, we’ll have glare ice. Better salt the front steps and the hill path.” By which she means the walk to the barn.

Pete keeps quiet. He should get all the chores because Lyle is socked from a three-day binge?

“And put on a sweater. T-shirt and coat ain’t enough.”

“It’s warm out.”

“Don’t argue. The fluctuations is what get you sick.”

Pete climbs the stairs as quiet as he can, as much as an old farm house will let him. His dad’s door is cracked a few inches, the light on. Pete’s room is at the end of the hall past Mandy’s and the rifle cabinet. He grabs a hoodie from his closet and heads down the hall again. The boards squeaking.

Lyle’s door opens. “Hey. Come here. Where you sneaking?”

“The barn,” Pete mumbles, not looking back. He is almost to the stairs.

“Come here I said.”

Lyle wears only a T-shirt and boxers. And mismatched socks, one black, one gray. His dark hair is clippered shorter than usual but he hasn’t shaved in the three days he was gone. He looks tired, his cheeks shallow gullies down the side of his face.

“I want to show you something on my computer.”

His room smells like beer and BO. Nothing of Cathy’s is here anymore. Magazines and snack bags litter the bed. Lyle’s clippers and sunglasses sit on the dresser with a crop of beer cans. And a little brown bottle the size of Pete’s thumb. Lyle left it in the den once, or one like it. Before Pete had the chance to look inside, Cathy snatched it up in a huff. Arlo said it was meth for sure, though there wasn’t a single way he could know.

The computer sits on a wiggly card table wedged between the bed and the dresser. When Gramma came to fix meals and babysit, Lyle brought the PC up from the den, since she sleeps on the couch the nights she stays over. Which are most since she and Grampa are fighting again. On the outs, she calls it.

Lyle sits at the table. He smiles at Pete like he’s doing it to show off his teeth. “What’s up, Cricket?”

Pete hasn’t heard that name in a while. The way Lyle says it puts a claim on him. Or who Pete used to be. Or who they were together.

“We ain’t hung out in ages, have we, Cricket?” Two ashtrays sit on one side of the table, both crammed with butts. Pete hears a text come in on his phone, the cartoon sound of three balloons popping. Lyle’s smile goes cold, then comes back with a vengeance, that stretch of wet teeth. “Well, buddy, we got kinda-sorta a problem here.” He turns to the computer.

This could be one of his jokes. When he’s jacked up like this, it’s hard to predict. A grid of images shows on the screen. He clicks on one with the mouse. It’s a closeup photo of a Guernsey bull. He points at the animal’s jaw. A shiny red bump has worn through the hair. “See that?”

He flips to the next pic in the search. The head of a Holstein cow or heifer with what looks like a honeycomb sticking out through its cheek.

“Gross,” says Pete.

Lyle cocks his head like a puppet’s. “You are so right.” His voice is a fake kind of thoughtful. “You nailed it, man.” He clicks to a different tab on the browser, a page of text titled Livestock Diseases. He points to a bolded medical term. “So how would you say that, Cricket?”

Pete sounds it out. “Ac-tin-o-my-co-sis?”

“Wow,” says Lyle, looking up at the ceiling. “He did it again. Amazing.” He turns back to the photos. A pair of hands in blue latex gloves holds a dead deer by the antlers to show its bloated cheek to the camera.

“Lumpy Jaw,” says Lyle. “What farmers call it. Lumpy Jaw Syndrome. It’s a fungus that does it, man.” He grits his teeth like his own jaw hurts.

Next is a cow skull with a mass of noodle-like bumps at the tooth line. Lyle hooks an arm to Pete’s waist. “Wha’cha think, sports fan?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seen enough?”

Pete feels a tug at one of his belt loops. “Yeah,” he says. A star-shaped cookie cutter sits on the table. Why it’s there makes no sense. Or the fishing rods in the corner that are usually kept in the shed.

Again the tug. “Positive? Say you’re positive.”

“Positive,” says Pete.

His dad looks up, eyes crafty, pushy. “Okay, then. Go down to the barn and take a look at your Audrey. Check her face good. Then come back and tell me what I got to do.” He knocks a cig from his soft-pack of Camels.

“What do you mean?”

“What I said, Cricket.” Lyle’s arm drops. His eyes swing away, wet suddenly. His lips pinch and turn down at the edges.

Pete backs toward the door. “I’ll look.” Lyle’s crying is worse than his bullying or temper. When he gets soft and muddy, when he’s tired like this.

Pete checks his phone on the stairs. It’s Arlo with news about an ice-skating party in later that day. Pete texts him back for the time and location.

Besides dripping eaves, another sign of the warm snap is a gift from the cat on the porch. A broken-neck shrew seeping blood from its mouth. All five of Miss Betty’s last litter got trampled by cows. She’s not showing yet, but is sure to have another batch by summer.

Everywhere, the surface of snow has a glaze. Yesterday’s rain and the overnight freeze put a thick crust of ice on it. With the snow cover shrinking, the stuff in the yard isn’t hidden as much. Pete can make out the shapes of the rowing machine and the box of books just off the front walk. A corner of the fish tank sticks out of the white. And the seat and front legs of a dining chair. The one Cathy used. Why Lyle threw that out was just crazy. Even Gramma said so. Pete can’t see the Krups. It is somewhere between the crabapple tree and the sandbox. Or at least the machine part of it. The carafe went another direction.

 

*     *     *

 

This time of morning, with the sun just up, Cathy would be sitting in the dark kitchen, watching the Krups go through its cycle. The blue ready light, the gentle hiss and gurgle, the smell that rose in the house like a tide.

Only twice did Pete witness the whole ritual. Both times he watched her grinding the beans, filling the basket, and placing her mug just so on the counter, covering—he realized later—an ugly burn mark on the laminate. The first day she brewed to the eight-cup capacity. Just to make sure it could, she told him.

With his room directly over the kitchen, Pete woke every morning to the chirr of the grinder. When the furnace was off, he could hear the floor creaking under her feet. Sometimes he’d hear the marimba ringtone on her cell and muffled chitchat.

The mug she used was large and lopsided and a color she called cobalt blue that had coppery drips down the sides. It came by UPS the same day as the grinder. That night Pete and Mandy were assembling the tree when Lyle called them into the kitchen. “Check this out!” His eyes had the fidgety, battling glint they’d had off and on since summer. “Look at this thing she ordered. Jesus. I could crap a better mug than this.”

Cathy plucked it out of his hand. “A master potter made it,” she said, as if to some invisible person. She cleared a place for it in the cupboard. “Can you put the lights on the tree, Lyle? The kids’ll want to be decorating, and it’s a school night.”

In the den, instead of laying the strings of lights on the branches, Lyle wound them around the trunk. He tried at first with the branches on, then yanked them all out and started over while Pete and Mandy pretended not to watch him. He moved from the couch to the floor, turning the trunk as he bound the cords to it. He jammed the tree back into the stand. Plugged in, the lights made a thick bright column. He fit the branches into their slots with a lot of grunting and swearing, then left to play cards with his house-builder friends.

From then on, it seemed to Pete, everyone was waiting for something to happen. Things would be normal, then Cathy would fix a new recipe for supper and sit silent and teary-eyed at the table. Or Lyle would sleep in the den for two nights. Or sit in his truck for hours chain smoking and listening to music.

The day after Christmas, in the afternoon, Pete overheard him ask Cathy for a cup of her “la-dee-da” coffee. She was playing Qwirkle with Mandy at the table. “I thought you didn’t like coffee,” she said, and he answered he’d never had hers. “I only make it in the mornings, Lyle,” and she added sort of under her breath—though Pete could hear her from the mudroom—“Like you need caffeine.”

So Lyle was brooding the rest of the day and camped out in the den after evening chores so that Mandy was afraid to go look at her tetras and watch the stream of bubbles in the tank like she had most of Christmas, with Lyle beside her a lot of that time, just as fixated, and keeping her from adding too much fish food. While the tree blinked its column of lights.

 

*     *     *

 

The wide, windowless aluminum barn was built by the people who lived here before. The mass of snow on the roof is shrinking, and the runoff drips onto the snowbanks below.

Pete steps through the side door into darkness heavy with the steam of animals. He feels for the row of switches on the wall. The fluorescents above him flicker into life. The light reaches weakly down the length of the building, over forty-two head of cattle, some standing.

The entryway is crowded with bags of milk replacer, the calf bottle sterilizer, bins of starter grain. An old metal cabinet keeps fly-kill and medicines. Miss Betty sits expectantly at the milk dish. The old gray tabby has a croak-like meow and is missing the tip of one ear. From a bag of milk replacer, Pete puts a half scoop of powder in the dish, adds water from the spigot and mixes it with his finger. Slash and Nitwit have snuck in from somewhere. Pete watches all three heads in the dish and tries to not think of the pictures Lyle showed him.

Everything around him sounds normal. The low, lazy groans of the cows, the scatter-plop out the backend of somebody. Pete’s job is to feed the calves and young heifers, like Audrey. She’ll be kept for breeding and Pete will get half the money from any of her calves they don’t keep.

He flips the switch that opens the big sliding door at the end of the barn. Several cows turn their heads. Their puffs of breath show in the bright, early light. The whole place is filthy, not a spot of clean straw anywhere on the floor. Lyle should have been here to take care of this. All Gramma says when he goes on a binge is he needs more construction jobs to keep him occupied, or how life is especially hard on him now, though she never mentions Cathy.

A few cows lumber toward the door and fresh air. The herd is Herefords and a few Angus steers. Pete lugs a pail of starter grain to the calf pen. As he scoops it into their buckets, he sees Audrey walking up to the pen. The splotch of brown around her left eye makes her distinct from others of her kind.

“Hey, girl.” He thinks she’s jealous of his time with the calves. “You don’t got Lumpy Jaw, do you?” Her black eyes shine. She bats her white lashes.

Pete checks her muzzle and jaw for bumps. He doesn’t feel any. No open sores. As he strokes the ridge of her back, he hears a laugh from the entryway. Grampa Don wears a backpack and carries a stack of gallon-sized buckets.

“How’s it going, Professor? This your new sweetie?”

Peter Professor, Mandy Munchkin. Lyle is Lunkhead. Gramma Jean is just Jeanie—or Jailbait, from the time she got busted stealing a car when she was a teenager.

“Ha ha,” says Pete.

Grampa steps into the quartering area. He limps a little from his stroke. He has a face of creases all directions and glum-looking hound dog eyes. He looks nothing like Lyle. He makes his way between cows and poop slicks.

“How’s Jailbait doing?” He leans on a corner of the calf pen and chuckles.

Pete wonders what their fight is about. Last time was over the player piano, which had never worked as far as Pete knew. It belonged to Grampa’s family and Gramma sold it without telling him. So he chopped down her clematis plants. That was a June-to-August fight.

“Do you see something wrong with my heifer?” Pete asks. “Dad says she’s got Lumpy Jaw Syndrome.”

Stooping down, the old man gives Audrey’s head a once over. His eyebrows rise, rise higher and plunge. “Well, I hate to tell you…” He shakes his head, deep-frowning like Mandy. “Professor, I think your heifer— What’s her name?”

“Audrey.”

“Well, I think your Audrey is turning into a cow.”

Pete waits for the loud laugh. When it comes, the calves edge away from their buckets and Audrey stalks off like she’s embarrassed by such a lame joke.

“I don’t see nothing either,” says Pete. “I think he was kidding. Stuff he showed me online was scary. Cows with their cheeks all bulged out.”

Grampa looks toward the door to the feed yard where a lone Angus has ventured. It slowly manages the ice and snow on its way toward the one accessible salt block.

“You gonna help me with tapping, Professor?” He means the maples. Last year they tapped more than fifteen trees. The sap cooked down to barely two gallons of syrup.

“Do you think the sap’s running?”

“Of course! With this weather. I just hope we ain’t lost too much.”

“I got to put down some hay first.”

“You running this farm single-handed? Where’s Lunkhead?”

Pete shrugs.

“I’ll give you a hand after tapping, Professor.”

Miss Betty leaps up to the side of the pen. She keeps her balance for a few quick steps then jumps down again.

 

*     *    *

 

Lyle made the snowman two days after Christmas. A bitter cold day. That morning had started for Pete with Cathy pulling him out of bed before sunrise to help her carry the fish tank to the bathroom.

In the den, the tree lights were set to shimmer so the room had an underwater look of its own. Lyle sat watching TV on the couch. He turned his head away when he saw them. Cathy took Pete by the wrist and led him across the room. The aquarium cover lay on the floor. As they lifted the three-gallon tank from its stand, Lyle glanced over as if he’d just seen them and stuck out his tongue like a little kid would.

In the bathroom, they emptied most of the tank water into the toilet. The tetras washed out—plish, plish. The pee smell confirmed what Cathy had told him. Some sand washed out with the water. They put the tank in the mudroom and Pete went back to bed.

He woke in the daylight to shouting downstairs. “Put you in the toilet and flush you, too!” He could hear Cathy clearly through the floor. “No! Take it out! Just take it outside!”

Mandy was sitting at the top of the stairs, her blanky around her, licking the edge of a cherry PopTart. Pete sat beside her. Lyle appeared at the foot of the stairs, his coat and boots on. “Mandy! Sorry!” He was crying, sniveling. He looked crazy. “Let’s build you a snowman. Right now, Mandy-pants. Get your coat. We’ll go out and make a big one, okay?” She turned to Pete and hid her face in his shoulder. He could feel her breath through his T-shirt.

 

*     *     *

 

The snowman stands about seven feet high. Grampa squints up at it, his lips twisting one way and another, like he is making an official assessment. “S’posed to be some kind of mutant?” Pete takes a pic with his phone. This is the first time he’s seen it up close. Looks a bit like one of those Transformer figures or the cave troll from The Lord of the Rings. Two humps for shoulders, bumpy arms packed onto the torso, head like a giant fist, massive legs. The surface is shiny and hard.

Grampa kicks at a leg and winces. “Like rock.” He gives Pete the stack of pails to carry. They start through the woods. Crunchy snow and low brush. Jays and crows make a racket overhead. They see tracks of deer and what Grampa says a timber wolf made.

“It’s a coyote,” says Pete.

“Well, ain’t you the wildlife expert.”

Less than ten steps into the woods, Pete sees a flash of orange ribbon. Last year, they marked all the maples they tapped. New holes will have to be drilled. At the first one, Grampa takes out his cordless and fits a bit in. Through the snowbound quiet comes the rat-a-tat sound of a woodpecker. Might be twenty yards off or a mile.

“You seen your ma lately?” asks Grampa, as casually as if he is asking the time.

“Nope.” Pete takes off his gloves. He’s sweating. He checks his phone. Nothing from Arlo. Fifty-two degrees.

“Just wondering. She came back that once, Jeanie told me.”

Pete hears the words repeat in his head. The woodpecker stops. “She did?”

Grampa Don makes a face like he just broke a tooth. From his pocket, he pulls out three metal spiles. “I guess you weren’t home. Hold these.” The spiles are odd-shaped tubes about five inches long with little hooks on the bottom for hanging the pails.

Grampa squats by the tree. He places the bit in a crease of the bark and drills in a few inches. He makes two more holes spaced a good foot apart. The sap starts to bead right away. One by one, he takes back the spiles and forces them into the holes with his fingers.

“Who was there?” Pete asks.

“Where?”

“Who was at home when she came? Gramma?”

“I guess. She’s the one told me.” He pulls a hammer out of his pack and taps the spiles in tight. “Thought you knew.”

It takes them longer to get from tree to tree through the snow than to drill the holes and pound in the spiles. The sap is running. Pete can hear steady drips in the pails they have already hung.

The fourth tree is a soaring black maple with a clump of dead leaves near the top. “Squirrel hotel,” says Grampa, pointing with the drill.

“Where is she?” Pete asks.

“No clue, Professor. She got folks in Iowa, don’t she?”

Pete thinks Cathy is living in Kelton with the man they ran into at Kohl’s. Doug Duken. He dreamed he saw them at the Strich County Fair making out in the livestock pavilion. Cathy’s hair was piled on top of her head like she wore it in her senior prom photo.

“She got spark,” says Grampa. “I don’t begrudge her getting out of a rut. Admire it kind of. You don’t like hearing that.” He crouches at the base of the trunk, touches the scars of two old tapping spots as if gauging the mood or health of the tree. “My ma ran off a few times. Should have made up her mind and stayed off instead of confusing everybody concerned. You get me?”

Pete hears a text come through on his phone. It’s not from Arlo. Lyle has sent him a photo. Another sick cow, its gums bared with metal clamps, yellowish goo spilling over the teeth.

In an hour, they are trekking back though the pasture. They keep to the original path they had forged through the snow. To the north, another stitch-line of coyote tracks arcs across the pasture. Animals light and fast enough to keep from breaking through the crust. The harsh winter has made them especially bold. Two of the neighbor’s goats got eaten. The Madsens lost a heifer.

At the barn, four or five cows are gathered at the salt lick. Out of habit, Pete looks for Audrey. He doesn’t see her, but she might be hidden behind one of the steers. She likes being out in the sunlight.

 

*     *     *

 

“I promise,” Cathy told them. Slipping things into a giant leaf bag while Lyle was building the snowman. Pete and Mandy sat on her bed. Every minute or so he’d go to the window to make sure his dad was still at it. Why he was making it down by the woods was a question Pete knew not to ask.

“I just have to get settled,” she said. “I’ll come back for you both, don’t you worry.” She looked at Pete. A lock of blond hair fell over her face. “You understand, don’t you? You see how he is.”

She didn’t have many clothes to take since there was a big load of laundry in the washer right then and it was clear she wasn’t going to wait for it to finish. She picked some things from the drawers in her bureau and tossed them into the bag. Next was a dress and shoes from the closet. And her pillow. Then she strode down the hall to the bathroom.

Pete took a photo of the bag on the floor. Even with the pillow, it was less than half full. He sent the pic to Arlo and told him Cathy was leaving.

Mandy sat close to him, watching his fingers.

“Dad peed in your fish tank. That’s what happened.”

“My fishes? Why?”

He took a pic of her, too. “Just because.”

She grabbed at his phone, but he snatched it away, laughing. She punched his thigh. He shoved her off the bed.

“Stop it!” Cathy had returned with some jars and bottles, her hair drier. She dumped them into her makeshift suitcase. “Now listen. Stay here till I’m gone. Mandy, your hair. Pete, brush her hair, would you?” She gave them quick hugs and was off down the stairs, the bag bumping softly behind her.

Pete heard her on her cell in the kitchen. “Your son is out of control, Jean. One of you needs to come over.” Her voice was calm, the words placed out like she was reading a speech. “I’m telling you there’s nothing I can do anymore.”

Grampa drove over from Chiqua on his lunch break. Lyle was back in the house by then, red nosed, red fingered. Pete had already told him what happened. “Did she now?” was all Lyle said, though he repeated it several times. By the time Grampa got there, Lyle was sitting in the den with Mandy. They had opened a box of Swiss Miss singles and were eating the powder straight out of the packets. Mandy’s lips were ringed with cocoa. Grampa sat on the couch by Pete. The Weather Channel was on, a big patch of green sliding up from Nebraska. “Another storm,” Grampa said. Minutes passed. Lyle took out his flip-phone and speed-dialed a number, his foot tapping fiercely at the carpet. From the kitchen came the marimba ringtone. Pete felt the wall of his stomach go thin, the way it did when he had to climb the rope in gym class, got halfway to the ceiling and couldn’t look down.

The phone—which Cathy had left in the cookie jar—was the first of her things Lyle chucked, though he broke it in pieces before he tossed it outside. Sometime in the night went the bed doll collection and the dining chair. The next morning he threw out her books plus anything of hers she had left in the bathroom. Yet the Krups stayed where it was for two weeks. The Krups and the grinder and the bag of Gevalia in their perfect line on the counter. Like he was daring her to come back for them. Then one night he asked Pete to hold the door open as he carried them—machine in one hand, carafe in the other—out to the front steps and lobbed them out into the yard.

 

*     *     *

 

Gramma Jean takes two cans of Sprite from the fridge. “I saw you with all them buckets, Donny. Nobody’s interested in reliving your youth.”

“It ain’t that,” Grampa snaps. “Be a shame to waste all that sap, and it’s a good activity for the kids. What do you care?”

Gramma thumps the cans on the table. “Well, aside from the fact that it ain’t your land, I hope you’ve carved out some boil-down time, because my hands are full. I’m just saying. And that job gets everything sticky, so you’d better be ready to clean up after.” She looks at Pete. “What?”

“Nothing,” he says.

“Your dad ain’t asleep, F-Y-I.”

“Where is he?”

“In the den with Mandy. Didn’t see you salting the hill path, mister.”

“Later,” Pete grumbles. “It’s not gonna freeze tonight anyway.”

Back in the mudroom he hangs up his coat. The house feels different now. Traces of Cathy’s visit. She must have taken stuff that he hadn’t noticed. Her spring jacket is still in the closet. And a pair of her sneakers. Her raincoat is gone but she might have taken it with her the first time.

He sees that Miss Betty has snuck into the house. With her morning kill, too. Crouched between Lyle’s snow boots, she gulps the shrew down whole. Cathy never let barn cats indoors, called them flea buses.

“Hi, Pete.” Mandy stands in the hallway. The Strawberry Shortcake sweatshirt she is wearing is really too small for her now.

“What ya doing?”

“Checkers.”

“He acting okay?”

She eyes the cat in the corner. “Miss Betty’s not supposed to be here,” she whispers.

Lyle calls from the den. “Come and finish the game! You’re winning!”

Mandy huffs a Gramma-like sigh and obeys. Pete follows. The Christmas tree winks on, winks off. No other house in the world, he thinks, has a tree up in February. His dad is lying on the floor, raised up on one elbow in front of the checker board. He’s wearing a clean white T-shirt and jeans. Still the mismatched socks. He looks up. “Got something to tell me, Cricket?”

“About what?” Pete was hoping he had forgotten.

“What we talked about. What I got to do.”

“There’s nothing to do. She don’t have it.”

Lyle scratches his chin, the beard stubble. “Who don’t have what?”

“Audrey. Lumpy Jaw.” Pete looks toward the tree. “Grampa don’t think she’s sick either.”

Lyle taps a finger on the edge of the checkerboard. “Oh, Donny’s an expert on livestock diseases?”

“No. But anyone can see she’s okay.”

“So some miracle cured her and she ain’t sick no more?”

“I guess so.” Pete knows this is not the right answer. He hears Lyle lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke from one side of his mouth.

“Let’s get this straight. She was sick, you’re saying, but not now.”

“Yep.” Too late for him to step out of the trap.

“Well, maybe the swelling went down temporary, but it’s going to flare up again.”

“I don’t think so.”

“That’s a pretty big risk, don’t ya think? You want all our beef to get Lumpy Jaw?”

“No.”

“Then tell me what I got to do, Cricket.”

Pete looks at his dad. He’s not going to cry. Or picture Audrey being shot in the head. He thinks of the snowman down by the woods. A crowbar would bring it right down.

Lyle is smiling now, his eyes beaming. “You stick to your guns, kid, I like you. Mandy! Come here and finish this game!”

She walks up to the board but just stands there, hands tucked up in her sleeves. “I’m tired of playing,” she says to her feet.

“But you’re beating me, Squirt.” Lyle slaps his palm on the carpet. “Sit!”

Grampa walks in and plops down on the couch. “You winning, Munchkin? Is that what he said?”

Mandy scowls. “’Cause he’s letting me!”

“That’s one thing I never did,” says Grampa, directing the comment at Lyle. “That’s no preparation for life. Nobody lets you win.” He picks up the TV remote, flips from weather to golf to a cooking show.

“That’s why he had to force us to play,” Lyle mutters. “Till he got beat.” Lyle shouts toward the hall: “Right, Ma?”

Gramma Jean comes in with a beer and a cig. “Right, what?” She rubs her arthritic knee.

Lyle looks up at Mandy. “You got me now, Mandy-pants.” He taps out the move that will take his last men. “Three hops with your king and I’m grass.”

“You put ’em that way,” she says quietly. “It’s not fair.”

“See?” says Grampa. “Even Mandy knows you don’t cheat to lose.”

On TV, a beautiful woman in a dark blue apron cuts a tomato into very thin slices. Copper pans and stone counters around her. Cathy used to watch this show and ones like it.

“Mandy!” Lyle thumps the carpet again. “Let’s finish!”

She kneels beside him and takes his black pawns—one, two, three. Then she hops up and strides over to Gramma, head down.

“What is it, baby?” Gramma pats the back of her head. “You won.”

“Not in my house,” says Grampa.

Lyle rolls over, his back to the floor. Stares at the ceiling. “First time I beat that old booger, god damn but he couldn’t believe it. So we played another game and I did it again. Remember that, Ma?”

“I don’t think I was home,” Gramma says. “I was cleaning resorts all day in the summers.”

“It was winter, Ma. Right about now. So the old man starts saying I’m smart, I’m so smart, maybe I’ll get to college someday. ’Cause I beat him. ‘You’ll go to college and show us all what’s what.’ Ain’t that what you said, Donny-Dad?”

Grampa twitches a shrug. Eyes on TV.

“I was Pete’s age,” says Lyle, sitting up, his T-shirt speckled with dirt from the carpet. “The whole day went by and Donny’s all quiet. Drinking. And I could feel him just plotting. But supper came and bedtime. Nothing.”

“Oh, that time,” says Gramma, still rubbing her knee.

“So next morning I go to the john and in the mirror I see this blotch on my forehead. Black letters, P-H-D wrote there in marker. Man, that’s how he got me. While I was asleep!”

Gramma rips out a laugh and stands straight. “God, it stayed there for days, didn’t it? How could you do such a thing, Donny Trivett?” She limps toward the couch and eases down beside Grampa. “Lyle eating his breakfast so mad, just a-boiling, his forehead practically bloody from scrubbing.”

Grampa sits stone-faced beside her. “I don’t drink no more,” he mumbles.

“You people are shits, Lyle hisses.” Turns to Mandy, to Pete. “Those people!” He points to the couch. “Pathetic. Look at them! They’re the freaks!” His eyes glaring in his patchy red face.

“You calm down,” says Grampa. “You’re the one all buzzed up and ridiculous. You should stay in your room when you’re zooming like this. No wonder Cathy split. And the way you threw all that stuff out was stupid. The chair, the rower. Look, Jeanie, he ain’t even listening. He’s off in some zone. The fool zone.”

Which he is. Picking and swiping at the grit on his shirt.

Gramma has cuddled in next to Grampa. She strokes his thigh like whatever their fight was about is old history.

“Just needs to wind down,” she says. She sits forward to grind out her cigarette. “Kids, there’s baloney and cheese in the fridge. Make a sandwich. Go on. Son, why don’t you go upstairs and stretch out?”

Lyle rises enough to notch his butt on the couch arm. Drags a hand over his face. Then he stands and walks toward the hall, kind of ambling. Black sock, gray sock. Gramma follows like she thinks he’ll knock something over.

“Munchkin!” says Grampa. He does Mandy’s favorite trick with his eyelids, flipping them inside out with his fingers.

“Ewww!” she squeals and climbs up beside him.

When Pete hears Lyle’s feet on the stairs, he ventures into the hall. Gramma’s voice comes sharp from the kitchen. “Don’t you dare, you!”

Miss Betty is sitting by the fridge, hunched up, choking. She chucks up a lump of wet fur. “For God sakes She must have snuck in with you guys.” She cleans the mess with a few paper towels.

“Gramma?” says Pete.

As if she knows his question already, she takes her time standing up.

“Did Mom come back once when we were at school?”

She rolls her right shoulder like it hurts. “Who told you that?” She frowns at the wad of towels in her hand. “Someone with a big fat mouth, the old gummer.”

“You never said nothing.”

“And what would the point of that be?”

“So you were here?”

She turns her head back and forth. “Uh-uh.”

“Dad?”

“I guess. He told me they talked on the phone beforehand. She’d called.”

“When? What day?”

She drops the chomped-up shrew in the trash. “I don’t remember, Petey.”

“Was it recent?”

“No, back in January. Look. You know I hate what she did, don’t you?” Gramma turns to show her most serious face, so wits’-end tired Pete looks anywhere else. At the counter. Out the window. Two grosbeaks in the crabapple tree.

“Mandy!” she yells. “Get in here and tell me what you want on your sandwich!”

“Do you know where she is?”

“I don’t. And don’t ask your Dad. It’ll only upset him. You see how he’s acting.”

“Disgraceful,” says Grampa from the hall. He has his coat on and is zipping it up. “Disgraceful is how he’s acting. I don’t blame her one bit for cutting.”

“Why don’t you shut up?” says Gramma. “Your mouth is flapping all over this morning. Are you off?”

“Got the noon shift.”

“On Saturday?”

“Ramirez cut his hand in the planer and they asked me to fill in. I’ll stop back for supper?”

She eyes him for a second. “Well, get me a cabbage and three pounds of hamburger. And salt the damn walks before you go, Donny. Somebody was shirking his duties this morning.”

 

*     *     *

 

Lyle isn’t sleeping or even in bed. He is looking out the window, a hand on each side of it. He taps his fingers and bobs his head like he hears music playing.

“Dad?”

The fingers stop. The head lowers. “What?”

Pete comes into the room a few steps. “Mom,” he says. “After she left, did she come back at all?”

Lyle’s head starts bouncing again, his right hand slapping a rhythm on the casement. “What a rocking tune!” he says. As if he’s wearing invisible headphones.

Pete looks at the clutter on the bed, the floor, the card table. The gyroscope screensaver moves on the PC. A box of rifle shells sits on a corner of the table. It had probably been there before and means nothing. No more than the cookie cutter.

Lyle starts whisper-singing, his breath coming through the shapes his mouth makes. Whatever song he is singing he stops. “Once,” he says. “One time she did.”

“When?”

“I don’t know, man. After Christmas. You was at school.”

“You saw her?”

“No way. She called and asked me not to be here. Said she had to get a few things. I says, ‘Like your Krups?’ And she asks all meek-like if it was still here. ‘Sure is,’ I said, come get it, sick of looking at it.’ Don’t know why I let it sit there at all, staring at me every damn day.”

“But you threw it in the yard,” says Pete. “I saw you.”

“That was after, man. After she came.” Lyle, pushing back from the window, turns. “So I left like she asked. I wasn’t gonna at first, then I thought, shit, I don’t want to see her, thinking I better not fucking be here, man.”

Pete watches his dad coming toward him, eyes lit. He veers off toward the bed, kind of staggering. Pete hears Grampa’s truck in the driveway. The engine turning over, turning over, starting.

“And what do I see on my way out the door? One of kitty-cat’s presents on the step. A red squirrel she must’ve caught in the barn. Just a small thing, all crumped up and flea-bitten looking.”

He plops on the edge of the bed. A magazine slides off. Outdoor Life. His face goes blank. He stares at the carpet.

“Red squirrel,” says Pete.

Lyle nods just barely. “Oh. Yeah. Dead Red. So I pick him up, I go back inside and guess what? I stick the little fucker in that damn coffeemaker and I brew her eight cups of gourmet rodent.”

Lyle’s eyes snap to Pete’s. A defiant yet tortured sort of light in them. Jaw working. He looks like he might start to cry. He flops back on the bed, on newspapers, potato chip bags. He brays out one string of laughs, then another, snorting between. “We got her!” he shouts at the ceiling. “We got her so good, didn’t we?”

 

*     *     *

 

The ice left on the front walk is pocked with salt holes. In the yard, the aquarium juts up from the snow, sunlight trapped in a dirty glass corner. “Look!” says Mandy. She climbs over the ridge of shoveled snow. She’s wearing the cap with the panda ears on it Grampa gave her for Christmas. She tries to pull the aquarium free, first with her mittens on, then without.

Gramma told Pete to take her down to the woods to show her the snowman and the maple tree buckets. “So your daddy can settle down,” she said.

“Pete!”

“Just leave it, Mandy.”

A few feet from the tank lies the box of accounting books from the tech school Cathy went to. Cardboard flaps all soggy. The sandbox is still buried but he can make out the shape of its frame. The rowing machine sits near the crab apple tree, most of it visible now. The Krups close by. He thinks he can see the top of it hiding just under the snow.

A text from Arlo comes through. The skating party is at the Jilek’s from two to four today. Pete responds that he’ll be there if he can get somebody to drive him.

He climbs the snowbank, stomping footholds as he goes. The Jileks live almost to Chiqua and Gramma will bitch about gas. Had he known, he could have asked Grampa to take him.

Reaching what he thinks is the coffeemaker, he raps the mound of snow with his boot. Sure enough. He rubs the grainy ice from its shell. He is tempted to open the lid, to prove Lyle was telling the truth.

“Come on!” says Mandy. “Let’s go to the woods!”

Gravel shows though parts of the driveway. Pete can practically hear the snow melting. He can smell it, too, like a dew in his nose as he walks. Snow and diesel and barnyard.

He moves along the pasture fence in the path he and Grampa made. Mandy walks on the crust of ice. She hasn’t once fallen through. Looking toward the barn, he sees more cows have wandered out.

“How warm is it now?” Mandy calls from behind him.

Pete checks the weather app. “Fifty-six. Wow.”

“It’s spring!” She holds her arms out for balance.

“It ain’t spring. Ain’t even Easter.” He looks up Chicago. “Guess how warm in Chicago?”

“How should I know?”

“Fifty-nine.” He checks Pittsburgh, where his mom’s brother lives, Uncle Vic. “Forty-seven in Pittsburgh. That’s way east.”

“Pissburgh?” says Mandy. She giggles.

“Denver is two below. That’s what’s coming, Mandy. It moves in a line west to east.”

“Pissburgh!” she shouts and drops through the snow to the waist. She gapes around her, tries to push herself up by the crust, which keeps breaking. Pete laughs. By the time he gets there, she’s happily tramping around in her wallow.

Early that morning, the snowman looked worn but still tough. Like he’d survived one battle and was ready for the next. Now he doesn’t seem so eager. His slump is more certain. Only the barrel legs look solid, but not in a supportive way. More like they’ll just stick around after the rest has ka-plooped.

“Dad made it for you,” Pete says.

Mandy steps close. Reaching up, she touches a hard lump of bicep. “He did?”

For a second, he almost reminds her. She can’t have forgotten that scene on the stairs. Instead, he looks into the woods and listens. No woodpeckers. No sap hitting plastic.

“It’s melting,” she says.

“Yeah, and it’d crush you flat if it fell on you. Break your neck. You’d be paralyzed.”

“No way!”

“Come on,” he says and starts into the woods. He imagines an ambulance van in the driveway, snow banks washed with red and blue lights. Like when Mr. Eckert had a seizure in art class and they carried him off in a stretcher. Only he wasn’t bleeding, just dumped a bowl of wet plaster on his lap and sat crooked in his chair. But Mandy he knows would be busted all over. He pictures the blood running out of her nose, her arms and legs bent the wrong way. She moves her shoulder a little on the stretcher, so at least he knows she’s alive. While Cathy waits at the van, her North Face coat zipped clear to her chin. Lights flash on her tear-streaked face.

The buckets on the nearest maple hold an inch of sap. He picks a flake of bark out of one and licks the watery sweetness from his fingers. If the snow in the hills has melted enough, the creek to Star Lake will be running. He hears a branch crunch under Mandy’s boots. Then a gunshot, far-off, and its echo. He looks through the trees toward the pasture. A second shot punches the air.

“We got to get back!” Running, he listens for more rifle shots, but all he can hear are his boots and his breath. Half-way through the pasture he stops to catch his breath. Behind him, Mandy is taking the trail at least. Up ahead at the barn about a dozen cattle are gathered in feed yard. More of them would have bolted out if the shots had been fired inside.

He starts again through the broken snow, a side stitch hooks in. Gramma Jean is standing at the fence a good ways past where they entered the pasture. She’s waving them toward her, away from the barn. Pete has to stomp a new path through the snow. When he reaches the fence, he’s panting as hard as his grandmother, who obviously ran the whole way.

“I want you two in the house,” she says. “No accidents. Guns are getting a bad enough rap.”

Pete ducks through the lines of barbwire, steps through. “Where is he? I don’t see him.”

“On the other side of the barn, I think. He spotted some coyotes. Says he did, anyway. I’ve never seen them out in the daytime.” She shakes her head, still straining for breath. “I think he’s just shooting crows.”

Two back-to-back shots ring over the hills. Pete looks for Audrey “Was he down in the barn?”

“I don’t know. Here’s your sister. Getting some exercise, hon?”

“What’s wrong?” asks Mandy. She’s flushed and sweating.

“Nothing, honey. Precaution is all.” They help Mandy step through the fence. A panda ear gets snagged on a barb. From the driveway, Pete can see Audrey just outside the barn, waiting her turn at the salt block.

“Not a thing wrong with that rower,” says Gramma, pointing into the yard. “I’m gonna put an ad up online. Pete, you can help me. Your boots are full of mud, Mandy. Stomp some of that off on the steps.”

Pete makes straight for the Krups. Crouching, he pries open the brew basket lid. The red squirrel is there, curled up, about five inches long, plus the tail. Dead red. Fur slicked over the scalded corpse. He pulls out his phone and takes a few pics. Its eyes are black slits.

“Get in here, Pete!” Gramma shouts from the steps. “I didn’t run clear to the pasture so as you can get shot up here!”

In the mudroom, he takes off his boots and coat. He can see the tree lights blinking in the den. He sends one of the squirrel pics to Arlo and says he’ll explain at the Jilek’s.

“She lost a mitten!” Gramma calls from the kitchen. “Try to remember to look for it later when you go down to get the cows in, okay?” He hears her lighting a cig.

 

 

*     *     *

 

Pete stands at the kitchen window as Gramma Jean cleans the counters. Instead of clearing whole sections like Cathy would do, she moves one or two things, wipes where they sat, slides them back, and continues. Including the bag of Gevalia.

Finally, he sees his dad on the hill path. He’s moving slowly, the rifle crooked loose in his arm. In his rush to get out of the house to shoot coyotes, he didn’t bother with coat or jacket. He looks like a fugitive. Some sci-fi bandit or bounty hunter dropped here from a warmer dimension. Miss Betty tracks a few feet behind him, careful to keep a distance. When he slows, she slows. When he stops, she stops.

“He’ll come in now,” says Gramma over Pete’s shoulder. “He’ll sleep. Looks like he’s ready to fall over, don’t he? I’m ready to take a nap myself.”

Pete knows that he won’t be seeing Arlo today. He watches Lyle standing in the driveway, listless, undecided. He looks at the yard, at the house, no expression at all. Just stands there. The cat, too.

In the distance, the blanket of snow on the barn roof has shrunk to half the size it was in the morning. It splits suddenly, the lower third breaking off from the rest. Pete watches it slide toward the edge of the roof. It stops and hangs there. It will drop any second. It will fall off in parts or together.

 

 

Michael Hawley’s short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, The New Yorker, Post Road Magazine, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. You can find more of his work here.