Always with You, Now
by Lancaster Cooney
Were there any options other than lethal force?
In that instance he pictured Oliver Chet and Aubby bathed in blood. Both joyous in mood, splashing at each other like two children in a pool.
IT BEGAN WITH AN infinitesimal shift in the weight of the house, nothing more than a dingy reacting to the early emotions of a wave. But it was enough to rouse Roman Parnett from sleep and have him punching code on the tiny black box in the bedroom closet. Amber’s body heat clung to him. He eased the hammer back on the Sig, filled the chamber and felled the safety. Noted the heave and decline of Aubby’s breathing in the room across the hall. Time was exclusive. Floorboards groaned from the hallway. The 9mm ate away at the wall, followed by the high siren of Aubby’s screams. Amber sprang from the bedroom and came toward Roman, “What’s going on, what’s going on, what’s going on?” Roman guided her toward Aubby’s room. Blood spatter peppered the hallway’s walls and front entrance of the house. The third bullet struck the intruder’s aorta, probably causing his death. The second nicked the spleen and is likely what brought all the blood. Roman watched as it pooled and darkened against the baseboards. Nothing so generous as the body’s ability to bleed.
Roman ejected the clip and cleared the chamber, assured Marlene Kael over the phone that the weapon would be sitting atop the refrigerator when Sheriff Haverty arrived. Amber came out of the bedroom with Aubby huddled to her chest, awkward in her footing, stepping as one might through the hallways of a funhouse. He directed her back, “Work on getting her to sleep.” She did as he asked, turned and clicked the door closed. Roman studied the dead man. Knew him by name. Most of his experience with the dead was relegated to that of the elderly, but Oliver Chet was in the throes of his early twenties. His head was shaved, not out of necessity, but convenience or fashion. And along the avenues of his inner elbows were the red pinpoints of bad decisions. He wore a wedding band and Roman thought perhaps he might have done the wife a favor, expedited a process.
Roman went into the kitchen and got the coffee machine to sputtering, parked it on a kitchen chair and listened to the comforting “shh-shh-shh” of Amber working to get Aubby back to sleep.
Sheriff Haverty came in and hunkered over the body. The man carried with him such girth in the paunch area that his thighs splayed and it seemed plausible he might drop a newborn right there on the linoleum. On his left pinkie, about mid-knuckle, remained the class ring of his boy Bevin who collapsed on the scrimmage field senior year. Coaches got down on the turf right there in front of the cheerleaders and tried to work the life back into him.
“Oh hell,” said Sheriff Haverty, “that Oliver Chet?”
“Hardly recognized him myself,” said Roman, “skinny, ain’t he?”
“As a bird.” Sheriff Haverty stood, vocalizing the efforts of the task. “It’s a got-damned plague.”
“I’ve no patience for it,” said Roman.
“See ‘em sittin’ all idle-engineed in the lot over there off Pine-Bluff, and ran a couple outta the new subdivision other night. Scattered like cockroaches.”
“What sort of wicked ghosts get left behind?”
“Yeah boy,” said Sheriff Haverty, “hadn’t thought of that.”
Amber came out of the bedroom and went right on into getting the men coffee. She was a good woman who hadn’t let the time since high school catch up to her.
“Cream or sugar, Sheriff?” she said.
“No ma’am. Where’d you swoop in from?”
“Shots scattered us all. Was tryin’ to get Aubby back down.”
County Coroner entered with two inmates in brown jumpsuits. Part of a program known internally as The Dead Run Porters. Nonviolent offenders mostly, theft, child support (in fact, mostly child support), and on occasion, the most irreverent of them all, tax evaders. The Coroner was a tall man, with granular cheekbones who seemed shy of words, offering counsel through his presence alone.
“Did you feel that you or your family was in imminent danger? Were there any options other than lethal force?” read Sheriff Haverty from a small card he’d pulled from his hip pocket.
“Now hell, Sheriff,” protested Roman.
“As I said, questions I’m required. Ain’t nobody makin’ accusations.”
“Man was in my house at three in the morning,” said Roman. “Can’t say I was much interested in takin’ any chances.”
AMBER SHOWED SHERIFF Haverty out with surprising casualty, as one might bid their dinner guests, good evening. An enormous island of blood remained in the hallway and she stood above it like a child debating whether or not to dip her toes into a pool.
“Do they really just leave it?” she asked.
“Home owner’s responsibility, I’m afraid,” Roman said.
She walked across the carpet and climbed up onto the couch and into his lap, smelling of coconuts. The dishwasher sloshed and emptied. “What time’d we start that thing?” he asked. Aubby’s slippers sat in the corner between the entertainment stand and wall, remnants of previous energy and happy war.
“We’ll bury this one, Roman. Swear it.”
They hadn’t noticed Aubby come out of her room. In fact, they might not have noticed at all had she not taken to grinding her teeth in the last few months. The dentist told them not to worry, sure it wasn’t a healthy habit, but the damage would be limited to her baby teeth. Ensured them it was quite common of children Aubby’s age, "Their little brains just won’t turn off.” She appeared to be in a state of sleep, eyes clenched, her body limp, almost ethereal. She wore a nightgown of sparkling ponies, each with its own name stamped across the croup of its body. Shimmer, Shine, Sparkle, and shit of that nature. All caked in blood. All their pony faces and obnoxious chomping teeth, red and beaming. Blood dripped from the tips of her fingers, which hung at her sides, a clump of hair caked and standing in an explosive mound at the top of her head. She’d unknowingly basked in the blood, unsuspecting as the newly born.
AUBBY FEARED THE NEEDLE. She sat perched upon Amber’s lap playing a game on her phone whose object was to smash insects beneath your thumb and collect points. She splattered their slithering bodies upon the screen.
“Turn that down, sweetheart,” Amber said. She was unclear what effects the other night had had upon Aubby. She’d been nearly unresponsive that night, when Amber scooped her up and stepped into the shower, screwed the faucet loose, and soaked them down with cold water.
Dr. Vogelpohl had been Aubby’s pediatrician nearly five years by that point. “Aubrey, can we take a listen to your heart?” he asked, rolling closer on his stool. The man’s eyebrows were thick and willowing and seemed to have plans to overtake all real estate associated with his eyes. She moved around his work, entrenched in the chaos of her game. “What have we got there?” said the doctor, “Eweh, boy! What a mess!” Aubby smiled and sniffed out a laugh. She paused the game when he took the light to her pupils and tunneled into her ears. She took deep breaths as he listened to the hollows of her insides. “Tiptop, young lady,” he said.
Nurse Hessinger approached Aubby as one might an unfamiliar dog. She sat in the chair next to her and watched as the girl smashed a few silverfish. “Gross,” she said. “Once had an apartment infested with those dudes. Still give me the heebie-jeebies.” Aubby eyed the metal container of empty vials. “Mom, what I’m gonna need you to do is hug this sweet pea tight and keep her from moving about? Aubrey, you’re gonna feel a quick poke and that’s the extent of it. Just keep watching your game or look up at mommy, okay? Be over before you know it.” Aubby began to push up into her mother’s ribcage. Tears welled and ruptured.
“Shhh, shh, shh,” said Amber, pressing the side of Aubby’s face against her chest. Nurse Hessinger wrapped the tourniquet and fashioned a bow, secured Aubby by the wrist. In one precise poke she sent the butterfly needle beneath the skin and ripped a piece of medical tape from the side of a table, secured it in place. She pulled blood, filling vial after vial. Aubby began to heave, a cacophony of sorrow snapping up from the well of her belly. “It’s okay, baby,” Amber said, trapping Aubby’s legs between her knees. It was then that she began to wretch, that watery swallow building at the back of her throat.
“Almost finished,” said the nurse. “You’re doing so great.”
Aubby jerked her head from Amber’s grasp and leaned out across the wide expanse of glossy tile. She lurched three times before anything came up. And just as Nurse Hessinger retrieved the kidney shaped bowl, the silence was broken by what sounded like dice thrown and scattering.
It came in two waves before Amber realized what it was.
AUBBY SLEPT WELL THAT evening. Amber placed her in their bed and fell down around her. Roman sat at the kitchen table and stared at the vile. It sat in front of him on a stack of placemats and made him think of those sand-timers that come with board games. He picked it up and examined it under the light.
When the doctor came back in, Aubby had already fallen asleep on Amber’s shoulder. They spoke in whispers, forcing the words, not wanting them to be true.
“Could these be hers?” Amber asked, holding the teeth cupped in her hand.
“Not likely,” said Dr. Vogelpohl. “Those are adult teeth.”
Roman turned them in the light before uncapping the vile and spilling them out onto the table. Some were stained by coffee and misuse, portions of them had pinholes, and right there in the heart of one of the little bastards was a filling. Roman picked it up and pressed it down into the surface of the table, wanting to push it into oblivion, leave it nothing more than eraser dust.
Evening news interviewed Oliver Chet’s parents and showed pictures of him holding what may or may not have been his son. “We lost him long ago,” said his father. “He was dead before he ever set foot in that house.”
Roman examined the bullet holes in the hallway, forked a finger down each one. He went into the garage and retrieved putty, spackle, and some sandpaper, filled each hole like a sacrament.
ON WEDNESDAY ROMAN stepped out while the girls were napping, leaned across the counter at The Grocery Bag and asked Loraine to fetch him a box of Marlboro Reds and a case of Bud. “Hell, throw in one of those six packs of Ultra, too,” he added. He felt half bad for cutting out on Amber and Aubby, but needed to get loose of that house a while, sip on a few beers and clear his head.
“Ain’t that sweet,” said Loraine, “his and hers.” She dropped the beer on the counter and began punching at the keys of the register. She was a stout woman who cut the sleeves from her T-shirts to make room. She spent little time tending to such incidentals as clothing or make-up; she wasn’t naive enough to think they’d make much difference.
“Yeah, well,” he said, “I’m a giver.”
“Sheeit,” she followed, reaching into a cooler and fishing him out a Coors Original. When she popped the lid it made that “psshh” sound and Roman immediately began to relax.
“People been talkin’?” he asked.
“As they will. Can’t hardly see what you could’ve done different.”
“I don’t know? Charge the fucker?” he said, taking a long drawl from the bottle.
“And that might’ve been you opened up in the hallway.”
She took his cash and fed the drawer of the register, slapped it shut like a vulgar mouth. Pulled out a couple coloring books from under the counter and sat them atop the beer. “For that sweet girl.”
“Much obliged. You and Sam still thinkin’ about buildin’ in that new sub-de-vision?” he said playfully.
“On the radar. Ain’t much interested in all that land.”
“Told ya now,” he smiled. “Take that place off your hands.”
“Yeah, for about forty grand less than we askin’.”
“At least you’d know it went to a good home.”
“Bahaha,” she busted out. “I’ll give you that.” She reached into the cooler and fished out another beer and beheaded it, sending the cap down at her feet where it joined the others. “You back at work?”
“Nah. Probably start back next week. Figured I’d stick around the house a few days.”
He’d purchased the garage from his daddy seven years back, considered his father’s leadership all heart and no focus. His daddy opened each day with prayer, going out into the lot and laying hands on each and every wrecker, thanking the Lord for good fortune and asking guidance for both the company and those he employed. Business been sailing toward the can ever since. Mostly, he’d kept the garage doors down. Bill collectors stopped by and pounded on the doors, shaded their eyes at the windows to have a look. Glenmore’s boy Stanton came by and gave the front windows a tint job, which provided zero visibility and allowed the therapeutic outlet of lude gestures.
“How’s Amber and Aubby doin’?” Loraine asked.
“Could be better. We let Aubby skip out on the rest of the school year; get an early jump on summer.” In that instance he pictured Oliver Chet and Aubby bathed in blood. Both joyous in mood, splashing at each other like two children in a pool.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Loraine said. “Just takes time, like anything else.”
ROMAN WORKED THE wipers manually, slaughtering beads of rain. Conservative talk radio rose up from the doors and dash. Roman clicked it off and took a long pull from his can of Bud. He recalled loading up the truck with his father and brother Cole, strategically aligning fishing rods, coolers and collapsible tents. Found comfort in the therapeutic hum that rose up from the floorboards and muffled his father’s singing. Cole sleeping with his head cocked back, gator teeth displaying metal and wire and malformation. Roman reached into the cooler and worked another can from the ice. Things were beginning to feel breezy now, light, so he rolled the windows down and let the rain spit in.
It wasn’t until he’d reached the driveway that he realized something was wrong. Amber stood out in the yard with Aubby wrapped around her. The rain had picked up. Both wore clothing that clung to their movements. Aubby dug her feet into Amber’s hips as though trying to climb to safety. Roman sprung from his truck. “What is it?” Amber turned away from the open front door of the house. It was then that Roman saw the blood. It remained as it had that night, in a poignant pool of accusation.
AUBBY AWOKE TO THE recoil of post-traumatic stress, two loud bangs that found her sitting upright, wide-eyed and racing. She knew very little of what happened that night, only that a man died in their hallway and it was her daddy who’d brought him down. She hopped out of bed and beat it across the hallway, balance-beamed down the middle of her parents’ bed where the weight pulled the covers from their shoulders. In the mists of their bodies she found calm, shifting all thought toward the zoo where daddy promised to take her over the summer. She liked to press up against the glass and watch the manatee drift by, weightless. Thick avenues of scar tissue where propellers once jutted in. And, there was something about the way those Silverbacks sat across that gulley and stared at you, seeming to know that if push came to shove they could scale that small trench, watch people scatter. Last time, daddy let the man prop her up on a stool and map out the features of a cheetah right there on her face. Nearly shit when the man said, “That’ll be fifteen dollars, sir.” Flipped his wallet out like a hound ear and counted out the cash, Aubby and Amber damn near choking on laughter.
Morning came and Aubby scanned a hand across the spot where her mommy slept. She was no longer there. The bedsheet popped off the corner of the mattress and reminded her of the way the models in those catalogues daddy kept beneath the bathroom sink would let their bra strap hang off the shoulder. Bacon sizzled and she could hear the grease spit and jump. Coffee bubbled. She had half a mind to try it based on smell alone, but Boy Brunner said, “It’ll make you puke, instantly.” And she’d yet to find the courage. She pushed back into the thickness of Roman and he brought a foraging arm around her waist and pulled her tight. And then she woke again, and daddy was gone too.
AUBBY AND ROMAN SAT at the kitchen table and colored in her new coloring books. He sipped coffee and scribbled at a green monster in a garbage can. “Good,” he told her. “Like that approach.”
“What’s that?” she said, tracing the inner perimeter of a big bird.
“Outlining that bird before filling it in. Helps you stay in the lines.”
She was pleased by praise and continued on with her work. Amber fashioned pancakes into mouse heads and set them in front of Aubby. “Alright little lady, scooch over them books.” Aubby brought the syrup bottle over the plate and the thickness rained down.
“Easy, now,” said Roman, pulling the bottle upright and wiping it down with a paper towel.
The phone rattled the hollow wall. Amber pulled it from the cradle and said, “Hello? Yes, this is she . . . oh, yes, yes, now’s a good time.” Roman refilled his mug. Outside two doe stood just beyond the wood line and before he had the opportunity to call Aubby over to have a look he noted Amber sitting on the floor against the wall. She shaded her eyes, but even still he could see tears hanging at the jawline like skin tags. Roman knew right then that it was Doc Vogelpohl’s office on the line. “Could the test be faulty?” she asked. “You know, like a lab error?” Roman walked over to Aubby and watched as she scribbled in the rest of the giant bird. He studied her little ear and tucked some hair neatly away behind it. Something was inside her, taking her slow. She moved the yellow crayon across the paper in ravenous arcs of friction, and Roman thought, or rather wanted to believe, that if she kept it going long enough, she might lift those colors right up off the page.
The third bullet struck the intruder’s aorta, probably causing his death.
An enormous island of blood remained in the hallway . . .
LANCASTER COONEY graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a B.F.A. in Playwriting. His work can be found or is forthcoming at decomP, Alice Blue Review, Everyday Genius, Gone Lawn, Matchbook Lit Mag and Heavy Feather Review, among others. He lives with his wife, two daughters and pup in the Northern Kentucky area.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
© 2016 The Indianola Review