Sunday, January 7, 2018

Fiction #76: Liz Betz

Afterimage

It’s the middle of a moonless night in November when Yvonne turns off the yard light.  The shabby farmyard disappears from sight, but the unspeakable afterimage remains.  The only answer then, is to turn off her thoughts.  But there are bright stars in the shroud of darkness that evoke an old memory. 

She’s sung good-night to those same stars for her son. 

Kev loved the bedtime game; his innocence sparkled.  Twinkle, please twinkle.  He would beg all day.  Kev, of course, never understood how a person could go mad with twinkle, forever without end, twinkle. 

Without end, this madness is like a particular dream where she serves beer after beer to demanding customers.  But it is no dream when she shows up for work earlier that day. 

Stan looks at her.

“You haven’t had much sleep, have you?  I’d close up and take you home, if it weren’t for the live music.”  His voice suggests lullabies and flannel warmed slumber. 

Yvonne shakes her head and turns away. He’d better not go any further.  He’d better not offer her a shoulder to cry on.  Stan might want to be with her, but that means he would share her burdens.  He has no idea what it is to parent Kev.  Even Kev’s own father didn’t last. 

“I guess the band is a nameless wonder,” Stan says as Yvonne forces her eyes from the Christmas lights, her brain caught for a moment by the blinking, color changing cycle. Stan explains how the musicians want everyone to suggest names.

“That’s why they have set up the decorated blackboard and provided chalk.”

A squeal, like barb-wire stretching, comes from the amplifier. Yvonne shivers as if the sound is a prophecy.

“Am I supposed to get people to participate?”  She asks, unable to understand any new detail of the job, her sharpness worn away.  Kev is still missing.  It’s almost three days. 

“No. Don’t worry about it.” Stan says. “I’m glad you’re here.  You shouldn’t be alone.” 

“Maybe I won’t be any use.”

Despite her words Yvonne picks up a tray, wincing a little because of her wrist.  She’s lucky it isn’t broken.

“We’ll manage,” Stan says. “I’ll know soon enough what everyone is drinking.”

Yvonne goes to answer a drinker’s wave.  She knows these people, knows this place.  After three and a half years, she can tell which patrons are alcoholics or those here for short term relief.  The ones that she doesn’t want to think about; the ones that touch her soul, have this look of going under.  A reality, she sometimes believes, close to her own.    

Once, to make her smile, Stan said ‘reality is a crutch for people who can’t handle their addictions.’  That’s Stan.  His outlook always hearty, his manner kind, he’s done his best during Kev’s disappearance.  She’s grateful but Yvonne is still as empty as last weekend’s beer keg.  Overturned to drain. 

There is a group, friends of the band, who are close to the right age.  They might know something of Kev.  Her heart leaps and then collapses with pain sharper than no hope at all.  Why would they know anything, even if they were her son’s classmates?  These kids have no handicaps and no concern for anyone but themselves; to expect anything from them is a trip down hopeless avenue. 

She takes their order and starts back. 

“You look like shit.” 

Her brother would have to be here.  Yvonne’s intent had been to pass by where he sat with his cronies.  Maybe then she wouldn’t tell him off, or call him a useless bastard.  When she doesn’t stop, Sonny calls after her. 

“What did you expect me to do?  The police said Kev was all right.” 

At least she doesn’t have to explain why she’s pissed with him. 

“Really sis?” he says before she is out of earshot. “Kev’s legally an adult.  That means he’s too old to be brought home by the police.  If you don’t get that, maybe you’re the hopeless case.” 

Sonny looks to his table mates for approval but their attention is caught by something in their lap, or across the room.  They don’t challenge his words but that non-action is a different thing than respect.

At the counter, Yvonne listens as Stan explains a drink order but when he asks how she’s doing, hot tears gush into her eyes.  Stan lips are tight as he looks out at the drinkers.  

“Forget your brother.  It would break his mind to admit he’s wrong.” 

That is all he says but somehow his words move Yvonne on.  No one is a hopeless case.  It’s complicated being Kev’s mother.  There is a snarl of guilt as she tries to protect and yet not kill his spirit. 

Sonny means to help.  He is so sure he has the answer for them when the programs for Kev end.  ‘Let him be a farmer, get some pigs, there’s pens at the old place, both of you can live there.  Kev can hang around with me and learn the ropes.  What do you say Sis?  Do you have a better plan?’

She hadn’t.  But before Sonny does any real good he explodes with her and Kev; his way or the highway.  The example seemed to unleash something in Kev; from then on his temper becomes worse. 

This assessment is true, but for now Yvonne needs to focus on her work.  She arrives at another table.  A hand reaches out and pats hers. 

“Have you heard from Kev?  We’re all praying for his safe return.” The woman half stands, as though she’s going to give a hug. 

Yvonne blinks against her tears.  She has long ago soured on such bungling kindness but this is unexpected.  She brushes her eyes with her sleeve before she sets the bottles down.   

“I just have to hang in here.”  She supplies the words that are the only ones she will take.  “Or keep it together. Eh?”  Then to distract she asks if they’ve a name for the band. 

Apparently someone has.  Unknown Bandits is written on the blackboard.  Yvonne sees Sonny stomping towards the band.   His voice booms through the bar. 

“Ain’t no name for a band, because it ain’t no joke.  Thieves are picking on this community. But here’s a name for you.  Dead Men Tell No Tales.”   Sonny smacks the corner of the blackboard.

“I tell you, if the thieves come to my farm, I’ll give them both barrels and let them bleed out.  That’s what they deserve, and that’s what they’ll get.” 

The guitarist responds with the opening notes of a popular song, at first hesitant then stronger with repetition as the other band members join in.  The tense moment slides by. Yvonne lets out a held breath; her brother’s bluster is often a problem, but perhaps not tonight.  He retreats to his table, his face stormy as he dares anyone who does not share his opinion.  Someone pushes a beer in front of him and with that Yvonne feels she can return to her customers.    

“Last night two vehicles were stolen, and a bunch of tools.” The kind woman tells Yvonne, a breathy bit of news.  “At least no one has been hurt.  Sonny hasn’t any idea what might happen if the thieves were confronted.  It could get ugly.  I hope no one ends up dead.”  

Hope.  All Yvonne can hope for is that Kev is not in trouble and will come home to her.  Then she stuffs those wishes down to let her job occupy her. 

While the band might be nameless but they are in tune and their energy is appealing and the crowd seems determined to enjoy their evening.  She delivers drinks.  She passes Sonny’s table. Her brother informs all that will listen about his neighborhood watch.  His one-man safety check-in with local farmers included Kev’s company more than once.  That seemed to work.  With Kev along people didn’t turn him away quite as fast.  Sonny isn’t above using any advantage.  He’s even asked her to let him know anything suspicious she learns at work.  As if she wants to spy for him. 

She delivers another drink order for the group that came with the band when a young man tugs at her arm. 

“We need another option.” He tells her.

Yvonne doesn’t catch the words over the music.  “What?”    

“For the ‘name the band’ blackboard,” he says with precision, like she is slow-witted.  Just as Kev’s workers would dumb their words so she would grasp their latest integration strategy or some experiment in behavior-modification. 

Yvonne looks at the blackboard. 

“We need another name,” He repeats.  

Lucky Bastards?  Crushed Hopes? 

Yvonne shakes her head.  “Sorry.  Let me take your empties.”

“Let Me Take Your Empties!  That’s rich!”  Laughter shimmers on their faces. 

They must be their parent’s pride and joy with friends and futures that they take for granted. 

Yvonne’s throat tightens. 

No such fortune for Kev.  The system is useless.  The programs and integration models are empty.  Yet Yvonne went along thinking there would be answers.  Swayed by the professionals, swayed by her brother’s farm raised ways.  Even Stan, the daydream believer, would have her believe a solution could be found.  But when there isn’t a clear Kev question, how could you expect an answer?  No miracles workers ever found.  No miracle.       

Still she does want a miracle.  Just one, small, she’ll-never-ask-for-anything-else, miracle.  To have Kev back home.  To see love for his mother in his eyes.  Her own eyes avoid the mirror behind the bar, she knows how worry has paled her skin, aged her.  Her head bows and blinking back more tears she slips off one shoe to rub her foot. 

“Take a break.” Stan says with a nod at her cigarettes. 

A moment of calm with a cigarette is irresistible.  She grabs her coat and heads out the exit.   Maybe she can finally quit… if Kev comes back…when Kev is safe at home. 

Intent on her mission, Yvonne has the cigarette in her mouth and her lighter clicked before the door closes behind her.  Then, beyond the glowing end of her cigarette, she sees moving figures in the parking lot.  Doors being tested, a low call ‘this one.’ 

Yvonne yells.  “What the hell are you doing?  Get away from here.” 

A vehicle parked in the ally roars to life, as one person bolts towards it.  Another figure grabs the arm of the third. 

“Come on Dummy, we have to move!”

Yvonne recognizes the hesitation.  It’s Kev.  Her son is with the thieves. 

“Kev! Kevin Robert, come here.”  Yvonne rushes towards her son. “This is wrong.  Come here.”
“You can’t stop me.”  Kev brings up an arm, a tire iron in his hand.  “These are my friends.  They like me.  You don’t like me.” 

He moves towards her; the tire iron swings.  His shadow is huge.  Then he brings his weapon down on the windshield of her vehicle.  Then they are gone. 

If she had tried to stop him and grabbed his arm, would Kev have hit her?  Yes.  Yvonne knew. 

“Is everything all right?”  Stan calls from the doorway.  He sees the broken windshield.  “What happened? 

“Thieves. They were about to steal a truck.”  Yvonne’s arms fly wild, her cigarette end an arching point of light.  Her breathing tears at the bottom of her lungs; her ribs deliver sharp jabs of pain. 

“We’ll have to phone the police.   Tell everyone what happened.”  Stan ushers Yvonne back inside. 

Yvonne knows that Stan is doing the right thing.  But would it be all right, if she hopes the thieves get away?  Would it be all right if she hopes they are caught?  Would it be all right if she cried, or screamed, or wept?  

Inside, everyone talks at once.  Sonny’s voice is the loudest.

“The band is in on it,” he states.  “Why else did the thieves hit here?  Right here, when there was too much noise and we wouldn’t notice anything.” 

The band and their friends look alarmed at Sonny’s accusation, but mostly the patrons ignore him.  While some put on their coats, the band begins another song.  Yvonne moves close to Stan to tell him Kev was with the thieves.  What his reaction will be, she doesn’t know, she just knows that she badly needs a kind word.  She can smell his warmth, a waft of aftershave.  But Sonny grabs Yvonne’s arm as he announces his intentions. 

Stan will have to handle the bar alone, Sonny proclaims.  He’s taking his sister home.  He’s the neighborhood watch person.  He will drive around and see if he can find the bastards.  Yvonne has no strength to overrule her brother; his grip alone makes her wince. 

In a few minutes they are on the road.  They speed through the night, in Sonny’s truck, over the rough country roads as every pothole jars Yvonne deeper into her worry.  The headlights bring fragments of the road into view so fast that she no longer knows where they are.  Sonny’s mission of vengeance frightens her beyond any fear she has ever known but Kev, among the thieves, alarms her more. 

How did this come to be?

Then Yvonne has her inkling.  When Sonny took Kev with him, he pointed out how certain things could be stolen from neighboring farmyards.  Kev could remember what was said.  She guesses the next step would have been for the thieves to befriend Kev, to find out what he knew.  Easy pickings. 

Unconsciously she rubs at her wrist as other aches echo in her shoulders and ribcage.   The entire list of her mistakes, right back to Kev’s conception has to now include Sonny’s influence. 

Her regrets are like stones in her stomach but what will be next?  Jail time for Kev?  Her petitioning for mercy?  Everyone knowing what her son has done? 

She stares as the darkness reaches in, withdraws briefly in the headlights then enfolds everything behind them.  

Then they are at their destination.  Sonny lets Yvonne off at her farmhouse door and speeds away, her door barely shut behind her. 

She wants to search for Kev, even knowing she would be in danger.  First she has to stop shivering; all warmth has abandoned her.  First she has to get over this dizziness; the ground sways as she tries to take a step.     

She should have told her brother about Kev, but then she’d have to hear again how Kev is a hopeless case. What if Sonny is right?  A whimper escapes her lips.  She should go to Stan.  But he deserves the whole truth.      

When the squeals grow louder and more desperate, she realizes the noise has been there since she got home.  She reaches the pen to find a sow hung up in the barbed wire, broken legged and cut deeply.  The blood has sent the other animals into frenzy.  For a moment Yvonne rocks back and forth, her hands over her ears lest she join the mayhem. 

What is she to do?  She forces herself to stop gulping air.  If she were at the bar, she’d use whatever force necessary to keep the peace.  A plan forms; good or bad.  Shakily she retrieves the double barreled shotgun and loads it, just as she would get help to approach an unruly table of drinkers.  She shoots the trapped and bloody sow with a single fatal round.  The sow drops heavily, instantly inert and lifeless.

The other pigs scramble away to the far end of the pen; they have no loyalty to their companion’s plight.  Then Yvonne locks the sows away from the dead animal so they are away from the source of their distress.  If only someone could do the same for her.  

“This was an escape plan.  You must have thought there was a way out.”  She faces the bloody dead sow. 

“Kev… he purposefully shoved me away from him.” 

Then she lets the memory come whole to her.  She is on the floor and she was down.  Her wrist fails her, pained and yet numb as she tries to get up.  She hears Kev’s growl, she sees his ugly sneer and then his boot comes at her and her ribs send fireworks into her brain.  As she curls up in pain, he walks out of the house. 

Was his get-away ride waiting?  For his actions, she understands now, fit into a plan of the thieves.  A plan he agreed to, and without regrets, as an image reawakens of how Kev brought the tire iron down on her vehicle in the bar parking lot.  There was such force that it would have killed her had she been under it.  This happened.  His success.  Her failure. 

She hears a vehicle drive into the yard.  Sonny?  Stan? 

No.  The thieves! They are at her fuel tank.  She steps out where they can see her, the shotgun like a third leg at her side. 

“Don’t do this Kev.” she begs her son.  “Let him alone.” She beseeches the others.

Someone laughs.  Kev swings his tire iron, the way he used to swing his favorite toys when he was a child, his ears delighted by the swish of air.  Those remembered toys and now the very real tire iron.  Kev is coming fast, like an animal gone bad.  His eyes alight with fulfillment, satisfaction.  Energy. 

He bears down on her. 

She understands.  She has to save him from himself.  That answer is pressure on the trigger. 

This is how.  The thieves running away.  This ending.  Kev’s whole sorry life is over.  Her son silent and so still. 

Can the dead forgive? 

No longer able to look at her son’s body, no longer able to know what she has done, no longer able to explain anything, she turns out the yard light.  All is silent.  The stars overhead disappear one by one. 

What remains is the afterimage.

*


Liz Betz is enjoying her retirement pastime of writing short fiction which has been published in a variety of markets.   She writes from rural Alberta.  Afterimage was one of the most difficult pieces that she has ever written.  Now she is extremely happy to have it published with Danforth Review.


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