S

 

Sheila sat in her car, hands gripping the wheel so tightly that her knuckles had grown pale with the effort. She wasn't going anywhere. Just frozen—stiff in a still, parked car. The leaves shook in the trees overhead, the trees that surrounded the circular dirt lot in a half moon. The dirt lot that was her front yard.

 

Nobody was home, but he would be back soon, any minute. She let her grip loosen to smack down on the horn as hard as she could, creating a loud, blaring whine, so alarming that birds shot from their trees in a panic. Staring straight ahead, past the woodshed, past the children's bicycles, past the trees, she saw a way out. She would end it all very quickly without wasting any more time. She started the car, swung around quickly, backing up close as she could without hitting the barn, and swerved down the long driveway, veering right at the last second to continue onto the road.

 

When she got to Pierre's it was almost dark. In the fifteen minutes it had taken to drive there, the sun had sunk considerably in the dark, veiled sky. She parked the car on the uphill slant in front of his door and pulled the parking break.

 

Pierre was usually home by eight from his day of working hard in the shop. He worked five minutes from where he lived, just down the highway at a local garage where young men daily got their hands dirty to keep the community rolling free. Sheila had sometimes fantasized about getting a job there herself, but the fantasy always ended with Pierre propping her up on some filthy hood, legs spread wide, his hands greasy as the car —touching her, fixing her.

 

The light was on and Pierre was home. She knocked twice, gently, so she wasn't sure he'd heard at first. He was probably in the kitchen with the tap on, clanking cutlery, rapidly tearing vegetables apart with some dull knife to cook up a stew with any one of a dozen hunks of frozen game he had hunted himself. Deer, bear, moose. Moose was her favourite.

 

She had tasted it first the night Spencer had accused her of cheating. He'd found some old photo of a boyfriend in one of her drawers. She had covered it with other papers, tax receipts and doctors' slips, but Spencer was unobservant until he felt like noticing something. She had kept the photo because she liked its composition. She didn't know much about what made a good photo but she understood that the dark man with tousled black hair, a bright smile, a sky even brighter overhead, and blue, with the leaves of trees blurred behind him, was a captivating image.

Sure, she had loved the man in the photo once, and he had loved her back, but sometimes love moves on, and then you meet somebody else one day, someone you love a little thinly, maybe, in comparison, but who is clear, and committed. Spencer wanted her to be committed too, so she had torn that photo right in half to prove to him that she was. But he never fully believed her when she was passionate about something. Right from the start his clear blue eyes had levelled with her. She had caught a glimpse of what it was like to have someone want you without a single doubt in their mind. It had felt to her like muscles relaxing after years of flexing.

 

Pierre had fixed their cars since her kids were babies. He had lived where he did longer than the garage had existed, had grown up where he was, inheriting the small wooden house from his grandparents who had raised him. Yes, he had made Sheila some delicious moose stew the night Spencer punched a hole in the wall above their bed, just barely missing her head. She hadn't known him that well, then. He was the man who had fixed her bent-in fender after her run-in with a deer one night, leaving her stunned and it limping back into the darkness to suffer a slow death or heal slowly and painfully. Sheila still wondered which, sometimes. He was the one she called when her car broke down one night in a snowstorm about thirty minutes down the road on her way back from Cowansville. He was the one she called when she needed to jump into her car and escape because something inevitably always went wrong with her car when she needed to escape.

 

He seemed to be the one she ended up needing when bad things happened. So it hadn't been that much of a stretch when she fled from her house in a bloody mess, jumped in her car, and ended up at Pierre's. Speeding down the highway, his dirt driveway reaching out like a friendly omen on a seemingly endless stretch of deadly asphalt, had somehow managed to slow her down, foot on brake, and make that left turn. When he put the bowl in front of her, the tears began to come. She'd revealed more than she intended to in that sitting and when she'd stopped talking he had brushed her chin with his hand, seemingly afraid to touch her longer, she thought then.

 

She sat across from him now, eyes dry and burning, heart hot and rushing. “I am leaving him,” she said.

 

Pierre inhaled deeply, and said nothing. He loved her.

 

“But he's not going to let me,” she continued. “He'll do anything, you know that.”

 

Pierre knew that this was true. He had had the misfortune of working with Spence for a few months once. The man had a certain dull, burning chaos in his eyes. Not someone you wanted to piss off, ever. Not someone whose limitations you could ever predict, or prefer one over the other, for that matter.

 

“Pierre, do you think you could get me a gun?”

 

Her request made sense to him, but he was someone who thought before speaking, especially before responding. He had learned early in life that not doing so often brought with it circumstances more dire than one usually thought possible.

 

“Just in case,” she added hesitantly, after a few moments. “I need to be ready, just in case. I'm going to end this, Pierre, but I need to be ready for him. He'll notice that I'm gone before I've even left. You know that. And the girls—”

 

“I can come with you,” he said, knowing that it made sense, and that she would never allow it.

 

“I want you to be there.” She looked up, locking eyes with the man in his dark blue coveralls, unbuttoned to his waist, revealing an equally stained, tight-fitting undershirt, once white. She looked at his worn work boots, the laces frayed at their ends, the state her nerves had now permanently claimed as their own. She saw his beautiful chapped hands, large, and rough as sandpaper in places, veins emphasized by a life of manual work, the lines on his hands darkened with engine oil. She saw a man she had slowly come to love and her instinct told her she wanted to protect him.

 

“I need to do this alone,” she said, and this scared both of them. “I have one you can have,” he said, after a while. She stood up to put her cup in the sink and he pulled her toward him, hand anchoring hip. He pulled her even closer, both of them half avoiding with their eyes. They kissed, for a long time.

 

She left that night with the same pistol Pierre had wielded at the age of thirteen, while crippling his father, who happened to be storming at him for the very last time. It was the same pistol that his father had held against his mother's temple more than once— after a few too many drinks—before that day when he lost all the feeling in his legs. It was shiny and black, and Pierre had not used it since. He had kept it clean, fully loaded, and tucked away, like a cold, ancient tool not to be handled unless necessary. She placed it in her glove compartment now and headed back to her house, travelling under the speed limit for the first time in her life. It was very late, she thought.

 

Hands gripping the wheel, she thought of her wedding day. People talk all the time about rainy weather being a bad omen for marriage. Hers had been beautiful—a hot, sunny, May day, not a cloud in the blue sky. But the funny, nagging reality was that she had been hoping for a rainy day. She had convinced herself that it would be a thing of solemnity—of vows being spoken with the type of sincerity that a nice sunny day would never have accentuated. And that afterwards, they would run through the rain, she and Spence, defying omens, looking straight in the face of fate, and ignoring its stare, while kissing, drenched, and surrendering to something greater than themselves. But what she had gone out of her way not to mention to others, was that sunny days, commonplace as they might be, made her very, very anxious. Sure, she could keep it to herself. She could relax into them after a while, generally speaking, and even come to enjoy them. Her body did, after all, respond to sun much in the same way that it responded to Spence. But at the core of both experiences for her was a dull sort of terror. No, perhaps terror was too strong a word, but whatever it was, it was sick, sick in an exciting way, and easy to control and to hide.

 

On sunny days as a young girl she had rarely been allowed to play. This was part of it, she knew. Summer break made up the bulk of her father's continually seized opportunity to teach his children the value of a day's work. But he had never known how to stop what he was doing, look around, and reassess a situation. Instead, he would spiral ahead, through those people and things he felt he cared for, like a big, fat screw.

 

She had said “I do.” She had planned to, in advance, of course. She had gone through with ceremony, in spite of the hot sun that shone on the people and events around her in such a way that none of their flaws had a chance in hell of remaining concealed. She had succeeded that day in concealing her own flaws, with her smile that waved like a flag at the throngs of people who gave little thought to sunny days. She had managed to disguise her grinding stomach, her shallow breath, the pit of terror—there was that word again—at her centre, coolly dismissing it all as doubt, the kind that every woman experiences on her wedding day. Not the kind that tears your stomach open from inside, clawing through vital organs as if they were minor obstacles, ignoring survival as if it were an abstract concept, not the kind that you can understand or explain.

 

And when she and Spence had climbed into that dark car with the words “Just Married” outlined in marigolds all along the back, the sun had already set for the day, her breathing had evened out, allowing her to forget her anxiety about sunshine, turning instead to champagne and sex down in Florida, where Spence's mother had set them up in a fancy hotel.

 

As she neared her own driveway again, Sheila's vision had begun to blur in a contracting sort of way, and she could barely see the road for seconds at a time. This didn't worry her as it might have—she knew its curves and felt its width, and the thought of pulling off to the side seemed deeply sinister. She became aware, at about the same moment, that what she had been doing all that time was tracing her path. In her head thatis, envisioning and re-envisioning the unlit stretch of twists and turns between Pierre's driveway and the dirt road leading to her own. She saw it snaking again and over again, the road she was on, playing on an endless loop in her mind. The shape of it, the double “S” quality, her car, stopping the flow like a cork, a third of the way through the second S. She saw herself, then, in such clear detail, that her senses were overloaded with information: a woman in her prime, beautiful, in a way. Gripping the wheel, but remaining in the same place. Moving, but always blocking her own path. A woman with a gun, in a car. A woman in a car with a gun in it. The simplicity of it expanded and contracted like a pupil at the centre of her forehead, pulsing at a rate equivalent to panic.

 

She thought of her two daughters, of how they were her only reason for retracing this same old road now. She slowly shifted back into drive, expecting that she would know when and how to switch gears again automatically when the time was right, that her body, her skin and blood and bones would remember just how to act and just what to avoid, would remember their history and take steps to improve things for their next of kin.

 

It was ten when she pulled in, and she saw that all the lights were off. Spence's pick-up was parked in its usual spot, on the steepest incline before their house. Usually he left the lights on if she wasn't home yet, was up, pacing and drinking and getting worried.

 

The very first time he had lost it, they had not yet been married. Sheila did not like to admit this fact to herself, but she knew it to be true. They'd been together less than a year and had been living together for only three weeks, in the same house they now inhabited. Sheila had not been working at the school long at that point either. The house, their life together, and her new job had all seemed to signify to her forward motion and general progress. She felt, at the time, that she was becoming an adult more with each breath. Spencer was a spooning lover exhaling into the back of her neck, his arms tightly fastened around her waist, making air dance lightly at the base of her thoughts. He had liked to wake her in the morning by softly tracing her face: from forehead, over tip of nose, down to lips, where his finger would rest, feeling her breath on his skin until she awoke a moment later to the surprise of his attention. She was a heavy sleeper and he liked to test her.

She'd come home from work an hour later than usual, to find Spencer home before her, a rare occurrence. That was when he had worked at the garage with Pierre, who had hired him because he knew cars, yes, but mainly to help the new couple out. That was before Spence had lost his temper, and ultimately lost the job, a few months later.

 

“Where have you been?” he had asked, without looking her in the eye. He was crouched behind his pick-up, shirtless, tanned and sexy, tinkering with something.

 

“I had to stay at work a bit later for a planning meeting.” “Why didn't you call?” “Sorry, I thought I had mentioned it this morning, but maybe you weren't entirely awake yet. Sorry, hon. I'll be clearer next time.”

 

“Sorry, hon. I'll be clearer next time. Really, Sheila? Really? What was I supposed to think? Well, my girl's an hour late, I guess I'll just wait a little longer before calling the cops.”

 

“Spence, you could have called the school if you were that worried.”

 

“I should not have to call the school, Sheila.” He stood up quickly, kicking the toolbox aside, scattering silver.

 

“Okay, I'm sorry. Next time I'll be sure you know where I am.”

 

He flung the wrench that was in his hand, hitting her square in the knee and catching her by total surprise.

 

“Jesus Christ, Spence!” She clutched her knee, nearly falling over as the pain began.

 

He walked over to her then, as she leaned forward, heaving, and pushed her chest lightly with his fingers, just enough to send her falling, sprawled out in their driveway, on her back, in shock.

 

“Spence, stop.”

 

He had leaned over her then, and she could remember it as clear as yesterday, even now, with the weight of a gun in her lap, and the headlights off. He had crouched down and hovered inches from her face. “Babe, I'm sorry,” he had said, gently tickling her neck with his fingers. “I just lost it there for a second. You had me worried sick.”

 

“Okay,” she had said, as his hand slid slowly up her bare thigh, tossing her skirt aside. Their dog, Henry, began barking at this point, suddenly noticing that something was awry. The tips of his fingers still grazing Sheila's neck, Spence used his other hand to pick up the wrench again and fling it at Henry, keeping him at bay, narrowly missing his head. Henry sprinted behind the barn, whimpering. Sheila's throat was very dry, and she began to cry. Her stomach twisted.

 

“Hey. You know I love you, sugar. Shh. I'm sorry.” He stretched her underwear to one side and slid a finger inside her. “Sheila.” He went down, then, all the way, boots digging backwards in the dirt, jeans filthy, bare chest and beating heart to the ground. He buried his face in her then, as she cried. As she cried, he licked her, sucked her, kissed her, massaged her, until she came right there in the driveway, in front of their home, in a mess of tears and dirt. Just as she came, he carelessly placed his hand on the injured knee, causing her to scream out, complicating the sounds she made.

 

Sheila got out of the car, gun in hand. She walked up the steps to their front door. The girls would sometimes still be up this late. Dark and silent. She froze. He had known. He had known, and he had taken them. He had done the thing he knew she would not heal from. She had to steady herself against a wave of nausea. She half expected him to jump out of the shadows and surprise her. She entered the house and glanced all around before switching the light on. Nothing. No one. Just toys on the floor, the TV on mute, an infomercial about knives, or wedding rings, or both. Down the hall to the girls' bedroom. Just before she reached the door, she realized she still had the gun in hand, no longer cold, now slipping with sweat. She tucked it in her back pocket, immediately feeling its weight. Her arm was sore from holding it for only a few seconds. Adrenaline, she thought, quietly pushing the door open, exhaling, adrenaline, adrenaline. They were there, fast asleep, and she didn't understand how it could be.

 

They were breathing there, in their separate beds, stuffed animals on the edge of each for the usual nightly protection from bad spirits, as Gwen called them. Anna still just called them “the bad,” in spite of her older sister's best efforts to teach her the proper terminology. She closed the door softly, both relieved and confused. Swiftly onward, to her and Spence's room, spotting an empty kitchen on the way, pushing open the bathroom door to find nothing, no one. Once in their room, she found the bed made, just as she had left it that morning, no ashtray or scotch glass left by a venting Spence—both but small traces of what she and her body had expected to find. He was still out somewhere, at a bar, maybe. But that's not his style, she thought, before the first thought had yet subsided, and then, even faster: but his truck is here.

 

No longer as frightened as before, emboldened by the so-far unexpected, and the gun in her pocket, she did another once-over of the entire place, gave her sleeping daughters pecks on the cheeks, and went back outside. The moon was almost full, and lit up the yard without any help needed from the dim porch light. She headed for the truck, opened the dented door; it caught, and she pulled it open hard. The usual. Nothing. Signs of disorder: cigarette butts under the pedals, empty liquor bottles, water bottles, a few of them, with piss inside, she was sure, but had never checked. Spence's piss was a colour similar to whiskey, at times. The truck smelled of take-out—ketchup, maybe, or melted cheese left in the sun too long. The Styrofoam containers were all behind the seats, tossed out of the way so they couldn't be seen, but still living, breathing, wafting always.

 

“Where the fuck.” She said it out loud, to validate, verify, officially make sure that she was actually present in this alternate world, one where Spence did not exist, where only evidence of him lived on.

 

There Sheila stood, in the middle of her dark yard, her children asleep in their beds, her husband's usual dwellings mysteriously, unsettlingly empty, dim, and quiet. To the side of the truck, parked at an angle she had not initially seen, was his dirt bike. Her approaching hand could feel the heat was still there.

 

“Spence!” her cry rang out, unmistakably frightened below the moonlit sky, stars shining down in silence, their bright bodies bearing solemn witness to her fear.

 

“Spencer!” Sheila marched behind the house, searching frantically, as for a lost child, a game of hide and seek gone one step too far.

 

“Spence!” She screamed it this time, suddenly aware as her voice rang back that she would wake the girls, but she was already calling him again. Beyond her fiercest reasoning and into the territory of her fiercest desire, she watched herself from afar. She sat on the steps and wailed his name, crying into her hands.

 

“Spencer. Spence,” she said it softly now, a quickly fading chant. She sat on his bike and waited, for what she didn't know. She saw it snaking again and over again, the road she was on, playing on an endless loop in her mind.

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