Sentinel pines glimmering in the slow, deep wind of stars.
The river moving steadily.
A small dock jutting into the water, breaking the smooth curve of the shore.
Moored there, a well-used, paint chipped rowboat.
Jara—22, willow-thin, leather hands, hard face, Athena-grey eyes—stands on the dock, her eyes scanning the panorama.
It’s November, late afternoon, her favorite time of day, her favorite time of year.
To her right, the river slides in from the north.
Behind her, the eastern hills amble beyond the cabin towards the mountains ten miles away.
On the opposite side, the flatlands stretch to the horizon, the immediate shore splattered with the sunset silhouettes of low-lying, weather-twisted trees hugging the waterline.
Jara tilts her head back, breathes in the crackling cool air, and exhales in a long sigh, watching her fog disappear.
The first evening stars.
Then the penetrating thought: Frank’ll be home soon.
She turns, stares at the cabin, imitates his voice—“Get cracking, sister”—and walks up the stubbly incline.
She lights the wood-burning stove, adjusts the lid on the stew pot, and sets the table for her husband’s dinner.
Her fierce-eyed ritual—fork, knife, plate, glass—just so.
Then she sits and waits by the north window.
Her vigil place for the last five years—since her parents died in the flood, since her high school boyfriend married her—and always the same melodrama played out in her head: Was it really love at all? Pity? Or did she marry him? Semantics? A nuance?
The cabin interior—exposed stone walls, lumpy cement mortar—is starkly utilitarian: an oak door, a Murphy bed that folds against the north wall, one chest of drawers, one table, one chair (his), one stool (hers)--certainly a signal to would-be guests (stand or leave). Two double-paned windows (north and west), graying voile curtains, a stove, a cabinet for dishes and household items hung over a free-standing sink, three small shelves to hold tools, a small armoire for their clothes (untreated white pine), a wall clock that spits out each second with nail gun exactitude.
And, yes, their Prom Night picture next to the cabinet—his eyes, the steel-blue glance, and the ironic smile, the curled one that hides his teeth.
Her eyes disappearing beneath ridiculous bangs.
A nervous smile.
Wood and stone, hard objects, edges.
It was after 4:30.
She places the pot on the table, keeping it covered.
She stands again by the window.
Then the complication.
A small motor boat coming into view in the twilight.
She draws her face closer to the cool glass.
Definitely a man.
He gets up, somewhat awkwardly—he’s not used to standing in a boat—and throws a line to the dock post. He pulls himself in.
He’s getting out.
It’s nearly dark.
He walks towards the cabin.
She thinks she can make out details.
“No,” is all she can muster, and runs to the door, leaning her back against it, as if that’ll make anything go away—or keep anyone out.
It’s too soon.
It’s too soon.
The familiar voice, quietly: “Jara?”
It’s no use. He knows she’s there. There’s light in the windows.
“Well, what?” It was a stupid thing to say. An empty stall. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“Jesus, Jara. This could be your last chance.”
Then it came out—“I never thought you’d do it”—one of those surprises you find yourself blurting out—where’d that come from?
“I had to leave. You know it.”
She turned cautiously, still leaning her shoulder into the door, as if he might actually force himself in.
“Yes. I know it. But you said Spring.”
“I have to ask.”
“Let me in.”
“I can’t. Frank’ll be here. You’ve got to get away.”
“You know how he gets, Rick. He’ll think the worse. He’ll shoot you and ask questions later.”
“It’s his way.”
“I’m his brother.” He knows that’s hollow even as he says it.
She knows, too. “Since when would that matter?”
“You’re stalling. Let me in.”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
They stood in their places for a long moment.
Less and less light.
She tries again: “Rick, he’ll see your boat and suspect the worse.”
“Which is what?”
“Are you dense? Or just playing your games?”
“What games? I’m playing a game? What game is that, Jara?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m scared. He’ll think you’re screwing me. Or that I’m leaving him.”
“I have—and you are.”
“That was a mistake—and I’m not.”
“It wasn’t a mistake—and it’s back to can’t or won’t. Of course you can leave him. Right now. But you won’t, is that it?”
Now she faces the door, pushing it with both palms.
“No, it’s won’t”
She mumbles—“F*** you”—though she doesn’t want to use those words. But they say so much, don’t they? Feel so good sometimes. Screaming them out at the river when no one’s there. A string of them. “F*** you. F*** your family. F*** everything about you.” So good.
She puts her face against the rough wood.
On the other side, Rick takes a step back.
A new tact: “Jara. Please come with me. It’s bad for you here.”
“You know it. He’ll come back, get looped, and you’ll live in the corner for two days hoping he won’t beat the crap out of you again.”
“What the hell’s keeping you here, Jara?”
As if he doesn’t know.
As if she doesn’t.
As if they haven’t rehashed this over and over in the last two years.
When it started up between them.
A July picnic.
Right there under the stars.
Like a movie.
“Say it, Jara.”
So, so dangerous.
In spite of herself: “He tried to save them. He became a broken man. I made a promise I’d stay. That I’d never hurt him.”
His turn for silence.
Then: “They’re dead, Jara. He tried to save them. He couldn’t do it. It happens. It was an accident. You made a promise to the wind.”
“I promised him. I promised on my parents.”
“Jesus, listen to yourself. Superstition.”
“It’s not. I swore on their souls.”
“Gag me, for Christ’s sake.”
That’s when she opens the door.
“Did you actually say ‘gag me’? How freakin' dare you make fun of me? You’re no better than your brother.”
He actually looks a bit startled by that one. “Don’t even think of saying I’m like Frank.”
Seeing him is unraveling.
“Jara,” he moves over the threshold, invited in long ago. “We’ve been through this so many times.”
“Make up your mind. I’m leaving in two seconds.”
“I can’t just go off.”
“Why not? You married a stranger out of pity.”
“He wasn’t a stranger. We dated in high school. He tried to save my parents. We went to Prom together.”
“Do you hear how ridiculous that sounds? You knew him, yes, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a stranger—with dark inclinations, as you now know so well.”
“So maybe you’re a stranger, too. What’s to say you’re not the same bastard? We all have secrets.”
That stops her.
“You see?” Rick says more gently. “It’s a loop of words we can weave—or we can act. I’m leaving home. So can you.” He puts his hand on her shoulder.
She doesn’t move away.
“And you’re right. It’s a risk. You only know me a couple of years. You only know what I’ve told you. But isn’t it the same with you? How much do I know—really know? So it’s a big fuckin’ chance we’re both taking. Big deal. We’ve got to, Jara.”
He embraces her.
Again, she lets him.
“So that’s the way it is?” She barely whispers.
“You say the words and I follow you. Like I followed him.”
“I’m not a monster.”
“Neither’s he. Just messed up.”
“You, too, if you don’t move. Now. This second. Before he gets home.”
Deep dusk has settled over the trees.
Then she hears it.
And she does.
They race to the dock.
She nearly trips in the darkness.
Frank’s pick-up pulls onto the gravel drive.
He helps her into his boat and pulls the motor cord.
It starts up—sputtering—then a gravelly purr.
Frank jumps out with the rifle he always keeps as his passenger, leaving the door open behind him.
Rick yanks off the mooring rope and pushes out into the near darkness with a powerful shove.
With a touch, the motor roars, full throttle, and the boat moves away, slowly, trying to build momentum.
She hears Frank yelling: “Who’s that?”
He runs past the cabin to the dock, the truck headlights flooding the scrub grass.
As if he doesn’t already know.
As if he always hasn’t.
As if the rivalry never existed.
“Stop. I’ll shoot.”
And he does, a bullet whirring past them.
She lets out a surprised yelp.
“Jesus, Rick. I can’t do this.”
“It’s too late. You’re not staying.”
She can barely see him.
“I have to go back. He’ll kill us.”
He leans in suddenly.
That remarkable jaw.
His teeth glimmering.
“Is that you, Rick?” Frank screams, in pursuit, a near wraith skimming the rocks in the moonless, starlit dark. “And who’s that with you?”
He sees. He knows.
“Is it Jara? My f***ing whore?”
He sees. He knows.
In one swift move, she dumps herself into the river, stroking violently away from the boat, away from Frank, stretching her limbs towards the western shore, for the woods, for the badlands beyond—anywhere.