Jen Conley's short stories have appeared in several journals and anthologies. She is one of editors of Shotgun Honey and co-hosts the Noir at the Bar in NYC. Her story collection, Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens is available now. She lives in New Jersey.
Pauline lived in a small house, a half mile outside town, too far for a soul to hear anyone scream. She had two dogs, three shotguns, and a shitload of shells stored in a box, something her mother brought over to her. But she didn't always have these things. Pauline had an unfortunate history, had survived one of those horrific nights when three men in a truck came down the road and found her alone without her husband. In those days she'd been a deep sleeper, with no dogs, and the men just came in, drunk as spit, all of them back from the war, raging with wounds of the mind and shear rottenness of boredom. They did what they set out to do, and they did it gruesomely and violently, and when one was busy with her, the others were drinking her whiskey and going through her drawers, looking for money. They weren't strangers, but local boys, she knew them and they knew her, had known them from childhood, but that didn't matter. They left at dawn and when her husband returned in the late afternoon, he did his best to believe her, because she was his wife. But he knew those boys too, had grown up with them, fished with them, played ball with them. When he confronted them at the bar, they claimed Pauline had been in town the night before, that she'd been drinking in the parking lot and had invited them back to her house. Which was almost true. She had been drinking with a girlfriend, and when that girlfriend walked home, Pauline walked to her vehicle and came upon the boys. They were nipping whiskey because it was cheaper drinking from the bottle than buying shots in the bar. She took a swig of their alcohol, then another, then smiled, laughed, mentioned that her husband was away for the night helping out an old friend, and said goodbye. She even said, "Stop by sometime." But she had meant it as an invitation to see her husband, not her. It didn't matter because this was not the story the boys told Pauline's husband. Her man went back to the house, kicked her in the stomach to make sure anything growing was gone, and left, peeling out in his car, the dust from the road rising up like flecks of gold in the evening sun. He returned to the bar, ordered his liquor and told everyone he and Pauline were done. Oh how he drank. Balls to the walls. Someone should've seen it coming.
Because God was vicious that night and sent him out of the bar stumbling, and wrecked. And He allowed Pauline's husband to locate his car keys, and allowed him to drive fast until he took a curve too quick and the car tumbled over three times and smashed his head in.
For a long time, Pauline sat in her house, her bruises fading, her heart dulling to a blunt nub of a muscle. Only her mother came by to give her food and soap, to stack her closet with shotguns and shells, and her mother brought her the two dogs who took to Pauline like loyal sentries in battle. Pauline would not go back to town, would not go live in town with her mother, because the town believed the story the men told, and the town proclaimed Pauline was a whore, a whore whose husband felt so betrayed, he drank himself into a car wreck. So she stayed away. She spent her time tending to her garden, speaking softly to her dogs, and reading the books and magazines her mother brought over. "You should move away," her mother advised. "Go to another place, begin again."
But she couldn't move. Go nowhere. She couldn't leave her bedroom, the place where it'd occurred. It was bizarre and senseless and frightening. She didn't understand her own mind. She couldn't let go. Sometimes Pauline sat at her beauty mirror, the one her husband had bought her for their first anniversary, and she did her eyes and lips like the women in the magazines. "I'm still pretty," she'd whisper to her dogs. She was. She was only twenty-three.
He came out of the trail, the dirt path that snaked away from the train tracks. He was nothing spectacular, nothing grand. A drifter, but not old, maybe twenty-five, twenty-six. Later, when he took off his shirt, she saw the scars of shrapnel on his back, indentations in the skin, like someone sprayed cut glass at his body. Later, when her fingers felt the scars, he winced but not from pain, he said. Just the strangeness of her touch.
Before that, he'd stood in her yard, a green backpack slumped on his shoulder, a day old beard on his face. Her dogs growled at him, the birds went quiet, and she cursed herself for not grabbing one of her guns. The man was tanned and lean, not handsome, with small eyes and a long face, a crooked nose. "I'll keep walking if you want," he said. "But my name is Leo Fortin."
The dogs stopped growling and she could hear a wren begin to sing. She let him stand there for a long time, a warm breeze kicking up the dirt, the dogs approaching him as he let his pack slide down his shoulder, slip to the ground. The dogs went closer and he crouched on one knee, held out his hand before petting the brown animal. The black dog went to him too and more birds began to call out sweetly.
They did not speak but she let him in her house, fed him a sandwich of ham and cheese, and a cold beer. He offered her a cigarette and she took one, although she didn't smoke often, and she cursed herself as it hurt her lungs. She let him stay on her couch, not even the spare room where a cot was set up, something her husband had dragged in from his father's basement. Leo stayed another day, then another. She told him he didn't need to bother with the broken front step or the cracked window pane, but he did it anyway. He was quick witted, making snippy jokes about the state of the world, the cruelty of being human. "I was over there, and I saw things, things done in the name of God or Country, and I can't see either approving." He cracked a smile and she cracked one too, and then he told her a Polish joke and she grinned, and then a French joke and she chuckled, and then he told he was half Polish, half French, and she laughed loudly. They drank three beers a piece that night and something happened to her body, it tricked hermdash;how could she want him after having such a dead heart? After what those boys had done? What her husband had done?mdash;and yet she kissed Leo anyway and took his hand to lead him to the bedroom. After three nights of this, he joked, "You're pretty thirsty, aren't you?"
Shame shot through her veins like a bad medicine and she kicked him hard. "Get out."
But he didn't. He just grinned. "You really want that?"
She blinked at him, studied his not so handsome face, the crooked nose, the uneven eyebrows.
For three weeks it went like this, and her mother came by, her old car barreling down the dirt road. She had two bags of groceries, dog food, and another box of shells. She seemed unfazed by the man in her house.
"You send him?" Pauline asked, nodding to the man who was outside fixing the fence.
Pauline's mother shrugged. "I didn't send him."
When she left, Leo asked Pauline why her mother came with the supplies, why not go herself? Why leave the old pickup in the driveway? The old pickup had been her father's old truck. Her mother had given her that too.
"'Cause I don't like town."
"Everyone likes town."
But on the fourth week, when the heat had grown heavier, when May moved into June, Leo convinced her to start up the truck and go into town with him. He needed some nails. "You're clean out. Now I can drive that truck myself, or walk, but you should come in with me."
She knew better but she did it anyhow, bringing her dogs along. Maybe it was hope, that it would be fine, that two years was enough time for people to stop talking. She sat outside, across the street, on a bench with her dogs. People walked by and they looked at her and she knew they were talking. She shut her eyes, her hand on the black dog, and let the sun warm her face. When the moment was over, she saw Leo was across the street, talking with older men who were telling him the story of her, the story her husband told, the tale the boys told, that she had drank with them in the parking lot and invited all three men into her house to have fun. The old men were telling Leo that her husband had been so heartbroken that he drank whiskies and beer and drove wildly through the streets and until he took a curve too quick and the vehicle tumble over and smashed his head in.
The sun was harsh and she had to lift her hand from the black dog and raise it to shade her eyes. Leo nodded and walked across the street, two brown packages gripped in his hands. They walked back to her old pick up and she drove him to her house, her dogs in the back, silence between all.
Leo followed her inside and sat down at the kitchen table. He produced two Cokes from the bag, along with the nails and he asked her to join him. She turned and went into her bedroom, took out the Remington, loaded it, and went back to the kitchen. She pointed the shotgun at this stranger who had become her lover.
He shuddered and sat up straight.
"You need to go," she said, holding the gun high, cold metal at her cheek.
Leo's voice broke. "I figured you had one of those."
"I figured you knew how to use one too."
Her hands were shaking and her iced heart began to crackle.
"You angry because they told me something?"
She said nothing.
"I bet there's another version," he said.
She swallowed, felt her arms weakening.
He looked her steadily in the eye. "There's always another version."
Her chin dipped slightly but she held it up again.
"I will leave. I don't want to. But if it's a choice between you blowing my head clear off or me leaving, I'll leave."
She could feel her dogs behind her.
"You want that? You want me to leave?"
She stood there for a long time, hearing the birds sing outside, feeling her heart bursting, wondering where she'd go after she blew him clear across the kitchen. Where would she go? Where would they send her?
"You want me to leave?" he said again.
They'd send her somewhere terrible. They'd send her there for the rest of her life.
Pauline lowered the gun, took four steps to the table, slipped into the chair and placed the gun on her lap.
Leo nodded and pushed the second Coke in front of her. The dogs followed, eventually laying on the floor at her feet. Later, they went outside and Pauline sat on the fixed porch step, the shotgun in her lap. Leo was out in the road, throwing a ball to the dogs. The two dogs raced after it, fighting for it, and the dust kicked up, glittering in the sun.
There was no Leo, though, was there? It was just her daydream, a want, maybe a ridiculous romantic fantasy, or a farfetched reach for hope. As she sat alone in her house, her heart nothing but a blunt nub, her two dogs at her side.
Copyright © 2017 Jen Conley.