The following story by Rusty Dolleman appeared in Issue No. 16 of the Marlboro Review
The school bus pulls up and stops at Audrey Lovejoy's mailbox, and as she watches it through the window, she can also see herself, superimposed like a ghost over the children who disembark. Their hands grip the smooth round rail, their boots sink just a little into the mud, their stained and unzipped jackets flap around their waists as they make their way up the soft dirt of her driveway, all within the golden shadows of her reflection. She switches the kitchen light off, left on since breakfast, and disappears. Now there are only the kids, the other people's kids, and the youngest of them, unafraid to show their desire for the warmth of her house, the warmth she knows they sense coming off of her, are sprinting up her driveway and pulling at her screen door. The older kids, the ones she will not be watching next year, all hang back talking to one another or looking down at their feet as they walk alone. It has been a strange, windy day and even now, the horizon contains both the blackest clouds and the bluest sky. Audrey's moods have changed with the light, this much she knows, and it makes them easier to control, a little.
The trial has been over for five weeks now, and in that time the number of children trudging up her driveway has steadily increased. Audrey does not know if this means people believe the jury's verdict or if they have merely accepted the fact of it and have since decided that what is most important is what is best for their children. There is a third possibility-that these people have just been waiting for her grandson to be proclaimed innocent, watching to see if such a verdict would mean that she and Red would make plans to leave for Florida, as they had the past four years, and that Audrey's daughter Shelley would reclaim her inherited role as "Grammie Lovejoy." For a few years, Red and Audrey achieved what most Mainers aspire to, which is to spend a good portion of the year somewhere else, and many people may have considered that too valuable to give up. The idea that more parents have resumed sending their children to the house simply because it has become apparent that she will stay the whole winter, and that it will be her hand and not Shelley's rubbing the heads of their sons and daughters, pricks at Audrey even as it satisfies her, and its satisfaction pricks her some more. She would prefer to interpret that information coldly, to look at it the way one looks at evidence, just another sign that her daughter is not loved or trusted in the same ways as she is.
Of course there are some people who sent their children to her door from the beginning of the fall, many of whom spent afternoons in her house when they were in elementary school themselves. Audrey knows they remember things that outweigh all the newspaper stories, all the rumors, even the sight of her eldest grandson throwing bottles at the side of the drug store across the street from the high school, his long black hair and jean jacket passing into their lives like a cloud you want to get out from underneath of as soon as you can. They remember the sharp words she had for bullies, watching them stroke the smooth brown feathers of Bert the Gentle Giant Rooster (long, long dead), and they remember the way she handled the shock of a period come too early for their parents to have even considered its possibility, Audrey kneeling in front of the toilet and gently describing what to do, barely visible through the tears. They remember these things, even if she does not. They are people who, when cornered at Shop n' Save, will announce in a whisper that they don't care if Troy Hendrick and two friends did walk up Dunbar Hill Rd. one clear night last fall, passing a gun back and froth on their way to kill Sven Pirranen. That doesn't make Audrey a bad woman, they say. You can't judge an old lady's whole life on what her eldest grandson did they say. "Hi Grammy!" the two first graders, a girl and a boy, yell as they dart through the kitchen. Audrey reaches out to touch the girl's long yellow hair on her way to the living room, but it's too late, she has already rushed past and is gone. "Hello!" she says, willing herself to be cheerful, but is unsure of their names for a moment. She knows their parents, and so reaches back to their births to remember. By that time, they are seated on her couch, the boy kicking his feet and playing his Gameboy, pulling it away from the girl's hands as she looks over his shoulder. The fourth and fifth graders are inside now, slowly freeing themselves of their book bags. There is one boy in particular she has been wanting to speak to, and she doesn't wait until he's alone, has never waited. "Ryan," she says, and his neck jerks upward to the sound of her voice, "Did I hear you cut a leg off a frog at recess?"
"I don't know. did you?" he sneers, turning his back and pulling off his jacket. Audrey takes a breath, knowing that in a moment, she will make him sorry for his smart mouth simply by her words alone. It is something she's always been able to do, and even though she has always kept the pink plastic paddle with the blue star hanging on her kitchen wall, it has always been more for effect than anything else. It was something Shelley never understood, that the "Fanny Whacker" worked best when it was never used: then the strength of the wielder remained legendary. The more Shelley used it, the less afraid the children became, but now that it has passed back to Audrey it has once again become a weapon of awesome power.
It is the same with her words, but for now Audrey is still for a moment, letting her silence and the silence of the other children fill the room behind Ryan's back as he goes on hanging his jacket on one of her hooks. She can tell his ears and cheeks are burning, now that this newborn thing in him, the knowledge that he can talk back to anybody, even Grammy Lovejoy, has finally been revealed to the world. He doesn't yet know whether to feel ashamed or powerful. Audrey pulls a chair out from the table, grinding a dull white scratch into the wooden planks of the kitchen floor. The oldest girl, still dressed in her puffy pink, purple, and whine jacket moves purposefully out of the room. "Ryan, sit down," Audrey says.
Troy had cut his hair short for the trial. It was the first time since he was twelve years old that you could see his ears, the back of his neck, the scar on the top of his forehead from where he was burned as a baby, wandering around the house and bumping into the woodstove face-first. Instead of recoiling, he had simply stood there and screamed, as if hypnotized by the pain. When Red pulled him away, his entire forehead was different shades of orange and red, the part where the scar now was as black as the surface of the stove. Shelley paid rapt attention to her son during the trial. She sat directly behind him every day, hugged him often, watched the proceedings with a greedy squint that suggested if she could understand everything that was happening she could affect its outcome. Her husband Marshall, who was not Troy's father, sat beside her, and on the day of the verdict Red and Shelley sat one row behind them. When the verdict was announced, Shelley wrapped Troy up in the loose folds of her yellow sweater, and they rocked each other as the Pirranen women wept in their hands and the Pirranen men's' faces turned white with a sick rage, some of them sitting up straight, almost grinning, as if all along they'd suspected the universe was shit, and that this gut-twisting unfairness was the final proof.
But the verdict had only been the punch-line to the joke that was the investigation and trial, the year-and-a-half-long ordeal that had left everyone in town shaking their heads and the high school in an uproar. At first the town of Florence had grieved that such a thing could even happen there, but the idea that justice might not be done in the case of an elderly farmer lying in his bed with a gunshot wound to the head was out of the question. It had been common knowledge that Sven Pirranen did not believe in banks, a consequence of his having lived through the Depression, and when searches of three local delinquents' bedrooms had turned up $1300, roughly the amount that had been stolen from his house, the Maine State's Attorney's office had slapped all three with first degree murder, rather than bother with less satisfying accessory charges. This was partially due to the fact that the state was never quite able to figure out which of the three, exactly, had pulled the trigger, a small problem that was quickly compounded by the kind of human error that reminded everyone in Florence just how small-time they all were. Police had entrusted evidence to doggy bags, obliterated footprints with their cruisers. The trial was moved to Bangor, and the judge inexplicably ruled that all three would be tried separately, even though there was no way any of them could have gone up to Sven Pirranen's farm alone.
On top of all this had risen the specters of older men, men with criminal records who partied with these boys and dated girls their age. It was one of these men, the defense maintained, who could have been there, who could have pulled the trigger, and now these poor boys were so afraid of him that they didn't dare breathe his name, even under oath. But no matter how many teenage girls beat the tar out of each other in the drug store parking lm over whose boyfriend really did what, all the adults in Richardson County knew that Troy and his friends were guilty. One of them, Sean Pelletier, had even bragged about doing it at a party. And Audrey had seen the look on her grandson's face, framed in his mother's headlock after the verdict was read. It had been one of utter disbelief, and, for a moment, of rapidly fading moral outrage, the look a small child has when something is just not fair, and he knows it.
When Ryan drops his gaze, slumps into his seat, Audrey is almost surprised to see how well her voice still works. 'Ryan, you're in trouble," a chubby boy comments, his tone not of one teasing or laughter, but of genuine concern, as if he wants to impress upon Ryan just how terrible his situation is about to become. The two other children still in the room, a fifth-grade girl and her younger brother simply stand and stare, afraid of something they can't even describe.
"Danny, Becky, Samuel, why don't you leave us alone?" The names come from somewhere deep in Audrey's mouth, materializing at just the moment they need to be remembered, and she wonders if she will find this ability to be all used up and run dry the next time she calls upon it. The children scatter, Danny throwing his hood back over his head as he steps back out the door and into the yard. It is bright outside again, the sun a silver glare on the edge of a dark cloud, in the western sky, changing its color from billowing purple to pure white. Audrey sits down and leans her elbows on the table. Her forearms are thin, pale, splotched with brown, but they don't quiver when she puts part of her weight on them. Not yet. "You know your father and I had some discussions, him sitting in that chair right there, and me in this one," Audrey says. "You know that don't you?"
Ryan shrugs. He knows. Audrey can see his father there, the same sulk, the same refusal to meet Audrey's eye. He'd pushed another boy down to the ground outside the henhouse, rubbed his jacket in the places where the chickens had been. Audrey can see this almost as well as she'll be able to see Mr. Kilfoyle pick Ryan up that afternoon, at his way home from the high school where he is the athletic director. Mr. Kilfoyle was one of those who had been smarter than to put his son in Shelley's care, maybe because he had known Shelley when she was younger, or maybe because he knew the way she treated her own kids.
"What do you think he'd say if he knew you were back-talking me? You'd think he'd like that?" She ducks her head down, tries to meet his eyes.
Ryan shrugs again. 'No," he says finally.
"Didn't I let you help with the wood last week like you wanted to?" Red had left a pile of half-split kindling out on the back lawn, and Ryan had begged to be allowed to swing the maul just once. He'd had to wait all afternoon until Red came home to stand over him and make sure he didn't get hurt, but he'd done it, finally splitting through one of the fatter, softer pieces on his dozenth try, little shafts and splinters of yellow wood poking out in all directions. "There you go," Red had nodded, picking up one of the halves and tossing it on the split pile, allowing Ryan to get the other. Then Red showed him where the maul hung, how to balance the blade on two nails pounded into the wall of the toolshed.
"Yeah," Ryan says.
"Then I don't deserve to be talked to that way, do I?" she asks. "I didn't have to let you do that, right?" "No," Ryan says, his voice becoming smaller. "What'd you hurt that frog with?' Audrey heard about it from one of her neighbors, whose daughter was in school with Ryan. She always knew things before parents or teachers did, and she guessed people gave her information because they thought that somehow it was tattling or betraying their own child's confidences, as if she could find a way to resolve matters without getting anybody into real trouble.
Across the table, Ryan blushes. "Scissors," he says, and Audrey can see his expectant face as he closed the metal arms on the leg of the frog, kneeling in front of it, shielding the rest of the playground from his little act of cruelty. There had been other boys there, she guessed, standing in a circle, some laughing, some with worried looks on their faces, as scared by what he was doing as they were of getting caught. Even though they had all seen dead frogs on the road, they would have been surprised to see it bleed. She imagined it limping away from them through the grass and back into the reedy puddle where they had found it. That would have made most of them sorry, to see it going home that way.
"Does Mrs. Kendrick know you did it?"
"No," Ryan says, and there is no pride in his answer. Ryan has a smart mouth, but he is not someone who is used to being in trouble, the kind of boy who frustrates teachers precisely because he never, does anything outrageous enough to really punish him. He will never be like Troy, who, once he hit middle school, could not keep out of detention. "They don't know about the frog." This is said in almost a whisper, and Audrey knows that he is afraid, afraid of his teachers finding out, and, most of all, of them telling his father.
The party had been Shelley's idea. The week leading up to the verdict she had planned it, sent Audrey's granddaughters out on errands to buy streamers and balloons, had them deliver invitations as quietly and as secretly as they could in school. The plan was for all his friends (and this included people who were now no longer his friends, even though Shelley didn't know it) and family to be at their house from the time they made it back from Bangor. "Have you thought about what'll happen when he's found guilty?" Red had asked. Shelley had come over one afternoon to plead with them to make more of an attempt to be at the courthouse in the final phases of the trial.
"Hey Pop," Shelley had replied, shaking her head, "you can say whatever you want, but I'm not going to let your negativity drag me down:" This way of talking was just a part of Shelley as The Mother, a role that she had only recently taken on.
Audrey and Red had always hoped that once she had kids of her own, Shelley would see how terrible she had been. Her older brothers had both been relatively easy to handle, especially for Red, who knew how boys (and men) worked, what impressed and frightened them. But then Shelley had come when her youngest brother was already nine years old, the house by then filled with other people's kids, all living and growing under Audrey's gaze. Another child of their own meant that even more of their young neighbors had to be looked after to make enough money to get by, and the days had been long for both of them. Red was working sixty hours a week at the machine shop, the sound of his truck returning home late m night sometimes disturbing his children's sleep, sometimes not. But being so far removed from the hard-earned weariness of those years now makes the struggle against poverty seem like a poor excuse for what Audrey knew she had done, which was to treat her own daughter as just another charge. When she tries to remember Shelley at two, four, twelve, Audrey can only see her surrounded by other kids, other events, and it was not until she entered middle school that Shelley really came into being, and the essential nature of this being was the knowledge that the time and energy expended upon others had been greater than the time and energy spent upon herself, that Shelley Lovejoy was a mistake.
The possession of this knowledge made null and void any authority her parents might claim to have over Shelley, or she at least spent the next ten years of her life proving that this was so. She became the first Lovejoy of her generation to dropout of high school, a decision which prompted Red and Audrey to kick her out of the house when she was just fifteen. This in turn led to Shelley moving in with her thirty-one year old boyfriend, and she was pregnant with Troy within a year. As much as Audrey tried to frame Shelley's expulsion solely in terms of Red's rage, she also knew that her own tightly drawn silence had been an agreement that it was time Shelley was on her own. Not just because she needed to learn a lesson, but also because they both needed a break from her mouth, from her anger. They had lost all control over her anyway.
Shelley eventually ended up with three children from two different men, neither of whom became her husband. She had been a bad mother, especially to Troy (her first) the kind of mother who calls her eight-year old boy "shit for brains" and "little puke". Audrey often wondered if this was directed at her and Red as well, a way of suggesting that they had robbed her of her ability to be a good one. Audrey had been at the house when Troy had, at fourteen, began bringing girls home, and was dismayed to find Shelley looking into their nervous, embarrassed eyes and saying "No fuckin' in the bedroom", sneering as if she expected them to do it anyway, and that they were stupid if they didn't try. So while Audrey might have been surprised to hear that Shelley had reserved two kegs for Troy's acquittal, she also knew she should not have been. But, as always when dealing with her only daughter, Audrey was struck with a queer sense of paralysis, knowing that any attempts she would make to try and change Shelley's ways of acting would be used against her, proof that she herself had been a lousy mother, despite the opinion of the larger community.
That Shelley had determined to take over the "family business" when Audrey retired was another direct attempt, Audrey felt, to mock her life and legacy, as well as a way to stay home, smoke cigarettes and watch TV all day while making money at the same time. She had insisted that Audrey hand down the 'Fanny-whacker', to which Audrey eventually relented only because she could not come up with a reason which wouldn't make it seem as if, in Shelley's words, she was "takin' money out of her grandkid's mouths." And even though Audrey had made it clear to her neighbors that Shelley neither had her blessing nor her support, some had sent their kids anyway. It was hard enough to find someone to watch their kids, and Audrey knew many of them had shrugged and chalked her attitude up to the fact that she and Shelley had never gotten along. On the way home from Bangor to Florence, Red and Audrey rode in silence behind Shelley's Tercel. Marshall was driving the passenger seat empty beside him. Shelley had insisted upon sitting in the backseat with Troy, declaring that she "needed to be close to her son." As they were approaching the on-ramp to the Maine Turnpike, Red and Audrey could see her once again reach out, wrapping Troy's head in her arms, wrestling it to her shoulder so she could feel him against her. For a moment Audrey was affected, even moved, and she could feel their thoughts in herself, their hopes that maybe now Troy could stay out of trouble and that Shelley could be a better mother for now, and always. That Troy's sisters could turn out to be something more than sad-faced afterthoughts whose mouths smelled like cigarettes. Audrey had some hopes of her own as well, and they now added themselves to the others, hopes that Marshall could stop being such a pushover while at the same time receive his reward for being the good husband and father he tried to be, that Shelley's brother Steven could get over the idea that serving in Vietnam should forever separate him from the rest of humanity and come home from Northern Ontario. That her other brother Shane would spend less of his disability payment at Cassandra's up on Route 25. And finally, Audrey hoped that maybe now Red could finally understand just how much his sons and his daughter and his grandchild hung on his every word and that each long slow shake of his head crushed them that much more. But once they were on the turnpike, which seemed strangely empty of other drivers, Red let Marshall speed away. For the rest of the ride, they could see him there, maybe three quarters of a mile ahead with no cars between them, just the empty stretch of concrete tinged yellow in a fading sun.
Ryan walks around the edges of Audrey's yard by himself hands stuffed into pockets, wanting to be alone. He does not go farther than he's supposed to, doesn't hop over the stone wall which divides the Lovejoys' land from the neighbor's, doesn't walk down the logging road that cuts into the woods, though he does stand for a moment in one of the wide ruts of brown earth that has been dug up and tattooed by the black wheels of the skidders. Audrey has told him that she will tell his father about the frog if he does not, and she knows he, in walking the boundaries of her property, is hoping to iron out the fear in the pit of his gut, to smooth it away. The only relief he feels is that no one has yet asked him "Why? Why did you do that?" even though he knows sooner or later someone will, and he will have to answer "I don't know", which will somehow be the worst part of it all.
Looking past Ryan, over the fields and up into the hills, Audrey can see the woods and orchards of North Florence disappearing into the horizon that sits somewhere over New Hampshire. Red is somewhere out in the trees, sitting quietly with his rifle, trying to enjoy this hunting season in the same way he has enjoyed all the ones before it. When Troy was a boy, he had gone into the woods with his grandfather in late summer, just to see if they could find deer-sign, but by the time he was old enough for a deer license he had lost interest, preferring to spend his hours after school wandering downtown Florence, hunting for anything he could find that was left on the front seat of an unlocked car. So Red had gone our alone, except for the few days Marshall could get off from work. Audrey wonders if Red is thinking of her now, picturing her standing in the kitchen window and watching the other people's kids, and if he is wondering why doing these things they have always done apart from each other now seems like such a deliberate separation.
If it were a different year, or the same year in a different life, Audrey would be making a mental list of things to do before they left for Florida. The truck would be already half-packed, since they usually left the day after Thanksgiving and Red hated to do things at the last minute. Marshall would have already been over to help Red slide the cap into place. But they are not going to Florida, even though this is the fall that each of them most wishes to be somewhere else, to be someone else. They hadn't even had a conversation about it, had merely intuited how the other felt the same way Red knew when Audrey needed him to take over with the kids, playing Go Fish with them at the kitchen table so she could go lie down for a while. Around the same time Audrey simply began telling parents that, yes, she would be available for whole school year, Red had begun his forays into the woods with his chainsaw, marking the trees he would cut down for firewood. They both knew that to enjoy the sunny weather, to be with the new friends they had made, to go to restaurants where people actually went out of their way to be nice to you because you were old and deserved some respect, to do all those things would somehow be wrong.
Red and Audrey had caught back up to Marshall's car when they got off the highway, and then followed him over the slow, maddening back roads between Augusta and Florence. By the time they had reached Shelley and Marshall's place, the temptation to drive the final mile and a half to their dark bedroom was nearly overwhelming. Audrey could tell Red was exhausted by the way he hunched over the wheel, a position which made him look old and weak, and one which he would never have allowed his body to fall into with if it had been anyone but Audrey next to him in the cab. Shelley's driveway was lined with cars, and people had parked in the field below her trailer as well. When Marshall pulled the Tercel into the driveway kids had swarmed out of the trailer and leapt down from the backs of pickups, pounding on the hood and yelling as it pulled into the space they had saved for it by the front porch. Red pulled over to the side of the road at the bottom of the driveway, and when he turned the key there was nothing, no sound to shield them from the cheers exploding from the top of the hill. Troy had emerged from the car and was grabbing his current girlfriend, a girl named Jessica with tall brown hair and a pretty white face she thought would never leave her, and kissing her full on the mouth while Shelley got out the other side smiling. And even though she had forbidden the girl to came to the trial, sufficiently cowing a girl long considered to be uncowable, Shelley laughed to see Jessica running her hand through Troy's new haircut like she was petting a cat, seemingly willing to share this boy on the moment of his miraculous return to their lives. Red and Audrey sat in the truck for a long while. "We don't have to go," Audrey finally said. "Yeah we do," Red replied, and Audrey could tell by the sound of his voice why he had pulled over. He was determined to force himself to look at his family, to watch them celebrate a victory for which he, for whatever reason, held himself partially responsible. Audrey also felt that they, in some strange way, deserved to be there as well, but there was no comfort in the sameness of their thoughts, and when Audrey looked over at Red, he did not look back.
"Well, let's go then," she said, and gripped her door handle.
Up at the top of the hill, bathed in the porch light which sat over the front door of the trailer, Troy was opening up a series of "Welcome Home" gifts from his friends, unfunny things like bars of soap with notes attached which read "Now you don't have to be afraid to drop me" He dropped his eyes when he saw his grandparents coning, turned a little to the side, and they were happy to stay in the back of the crowd. Red began talking with Chad Tardy's father, who had been Troy's coach in little league, when he and his friends were still interested in things like baseball. Chad had also been acquitted (the jury was still deliberating over the fate of Sean Pelletier, since he had been the only one foolish enough to open his mouth about the killing). He was the best student of the three, the one who people shook their heads about, and more than one teacher had wondered aloud if they had failed Chad by not moving his desk away from Troy's or Sean's earlier. Now he was somewhere inside the trailer, talking quietly with those few who knew better than to gloat. "We're moving away," Chad's father said, somewhat out of the blue.
"Yeah?" Red asked.
"Yep. To Pennsylvania. My wife's got two sisters there. We've found a buyer for the house and everything." "Really?" Even in the darkness, Audrey could tell Red was squinting. "So you must be going soon."
"Monday," Mr. Tardy answered. "We're not hangin’ around. There’s not much left around here for Chad to do except get in more trouble. He’s lucky he even got another chance. We’re certainly not gonna keep him around here, around all this crowd." He looked quickly at Red before looking down at the ground, scuffling up dirt with his boot. "No offense."
Red snorted. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "I'd do the same thing if I was you. Get him the hell out of here." Mr. Tardy nodded, and then they both looked back to the porch, where Wade was opening the last of his gag gifts. Even though robbery had been clearly established as the primary motive, there had been several rumors flying around town about black magic and devil worship in connection to the killing, and so when Troy held up his brand new Parker Brothers Ouija Board, the crowd roared with laughter and both men winced.
After Chad's father had excused himself and gone back down the driveway to his own truck, Marshall slid out of the darkness, beer in hand, to try to talk with Red. Marshall worshiped his father in-law, his near-constant silence that made every opinion that did cone out sound like the Word of God. Audrey knew that, even though he was used to it, her husband had never really understood why others treated him that way, that he thought himself no different than anyone else and was confused, even bemused by the way his presence could make younger men nervous, jittery, like little boys learning to drive, watching the look on their fathers' faces as much as the road ahead. "Maybe Troy should do that," Marshall said finally.
"Do what?" Red asked.
"Maybe he should move somewhere. You guys should take him to Florida. Get him away from here. Audrey tried to picture Troy with them in Florida, black hair over his face, jean jacket patched with pentagrams. Marshall was still a child around Red, and so he saw things the way a child sees them, thinking that lifting Troy up and out of that place and into another was as simple as just putting him in a car moving in that direction. He didn’t consider what Shelley would have to say, or Troy himself; the fact that he could never again tell his stepson what to do (if, in fact, he had ever been able to). Or that Red and Audrey wanted nothing to do with Troy. Marshall had not noticed that Red hadn't touched his grandson after the trial, or the look on Audrey's face when Troy had hugged her. But Red did not explain these things. He just looked at Marshall and shook his head. "Marshall," he said, "The sooner you realize that there ain't nothing you can do about anything the better off you’ll be."
It is almost dark when Ryan's father picks him up. Ryan has spent the last two hours wandering outside, hitting tree trunks with dead branches until the wool shatters in his hand. When his father gets out of the car, Ryan walks slowly up to him, head down, and Audrey watches as he gets in over with, lips unsteady as he confesses. Mr. Kilfoyle listens, folds his arms, looks toward the house. He says something to Ryan, who opens the passenger door of the little red sports car and gets in. Mr, Kilfoyle, a big man who always wears a green and white Florence High School windbreaker, comes to the door and knocks, his fist softly rattling the screen. "Hello," Audrey says, smiling as she comes to the door.
"Hello," he says, and it is clear that he is confused, still startled by his son's story. "I take it Ryan told you about what happened at school. With the frog?'
"Yes, he told me," Audrey answers. "I told the best thing to do would be to tell you." "I figured," Mr. Kilfoyle says and then looks over at the chicken pen. "Jesus Christ!" he says, louder than he means to. He looks back at Audrey. "It's hard to believe, you know?" She nods, gives an appropriate grimace. "Thank you," he says, before shaking his head. "You never really know what they're doing, do you?" Then he must remember who he's talking to, because a moment of pain flashes behind his glasses. But he doesn't apologize, probably not wanting to make it even worse, and so he thanks her again and goes out to the car. But even as he is opening the door, Ryan is getting out the passenger side, asking him a question. Mr. Kilfoyle nods, and Ryan walks back up to Audrey's door. She opens the screen for him, thinking he's forgotten something, "Grammie Lovejoy," he says, his tone formal but unforced, "I'm sorry I talked back to you." "Apology accepted," She smiles, and he nods, turns away. Once he is back in the car, Mr. Kilfoyle looks over his shoulder and maneuvers back onto the road in reverse, then drives off. Audrey sits down in her kitchen chair, looks into the living room where the Anderson kids are doing their homework. Becky is sitting at the couch, and Samuel is lying on the floor. Like Ryan, they are basically good kids, will grow up to be happy and healthy, not what you would call rich, but successful in their own ways. Audrey knows this like she knows that Troy will spend the rest of his life trying to get back into jail, that Shelley's heart (and it is with a cold, sudden slap that Audrey realizes she's never considered this to be possible) will be broken by it. That she and Red will never go to Florida again, and that when he comes home, all bundled in red and orange, they will have very little to say to one another, and that they will die that way. That happiness belongs to all of those other people's kids, tromping through and out of her house for generations, forever getting into their parents' cars, forever throwing their book bags in the backseat and waving goodbye, better people for having spent just a little time in Audrey's care.
Copyright © Rusty Dolleman
Rusty Dolleman grew up in rural western Maine and recently graduated from the University of New Hampshire Writing program. He currently teaches in the Maine Community College system. Other People's Kids is his first published piece.