Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Marni Berger

Edge of the Road With Lydia Jones

"Dogs are better than humans because they know but do not tell."

―Emily Dickinson

            Lydia Jones was going to kill herself by the end of the day—a gray late-June day just after school was ended; a moist and soaked day, cool and humid, the trees all varying shades of green. The clouds had no separation between them, stretched across the sky, a smoky film hiding heaven, barely. It was the summer after her father died and her fourteenth year on earth. She didn't know how she was going to do it, but the decision was final. Her heart had been a funeral for too long.

            She had awoken suddenly that morning, sat up from her bed, which was a loft hinged to the wall of the trailer and built by her father—and knocked her eye on the ceiling, hard, the pain echoing through her brain and to the back of her skull. The loft was originally meant for a toddler, her past self. She had done her best to fit as she'd grown—and then outgrown. There was nowhere else to sleep, because Mrs. Jones had thrown the mattress into the yard the day after Mr. Jones died. Not much an explanation for that. I just can't—is what she'd said. And the crying. Lydia didn't complain when Mrs. Jones took the couch, where she was camped—had been the past three months except to take Lydia to school or go to Lydia's eighth grade graduation, drunk as skunk. For this past week after school was out, though: no movement from Mrs. Jones unless you counted the beer and bathroom breaks.

            The toilet really smelling now, like rotting apples but worse, because you knew what it was, and what it wasn't was rotting apples.

There was consolation in knowing she was about to kill herself.

            As soon as she awoke, Lydia felt different, knew that the worry and sadness had reached the lowest-low; she was "in the depths of despair"—a line from her favorite book Anne of Green Gables that Mr. P, the eighth grade homeroom teacher, used to read aloud to her class each morning at school. After the eighth grade graduation ceremony, he had given them each a copy. She felt its glossy cover under her fingertips now. The book had been wedged under her pillow in the loft. There was consolation in announcing your feelings—the depths of despair—even only to yourself. There was consolation in knowing she was about to kill herself. Rubbing her eye, which was already swelling, she was taking her life into her hands, as the saying went.

            She normally awoke by five to run with Rosie. Today was no different. Endorphins, the old drug of choice, would be Lydia's last meal. Mrs. Jones—asleep on the couch, with nine or ten empty cans of Bud, all squeezed in the middles, as usual. And Lydia Jones—characteristically swift; shoes slipped over feet, she skipped to the front door; Rosie's familiar car-tire smell following; and then the leash, the red collar over her dandruff-black fur. Lydia's eye continued to swell, tender at the touch now, which Lydia took as a sign, of what? She didn't know. Battle scar.

            Rosie was a badly bred lab, back sloped with age, and whose tummy swayed to the ground when they moved along Route 3; she had belonged to Mr. Jones, as his shop dog, and now she belonged to Lydia. She had brown dots as "eyebrows"—and was the sweetest thing, everyone said. At eleven years old, she was not much younger than Lydia, really, and you could say they were like siblings, except for Rosie's timeless yellow eyes that contained past lives, records of reincarnations.

            On Route 3, where they trotted in the ditch and where there were no sidewalks, Lydia thought she saw the specter of Mr. Jones. Ten feet ahead. A shimmering hallucination in the light. Then twenty feet ahead. Moving further away. She had to catch up. Was it a real ghost? Ghosts, she realized, breathing hard, brain flying with thoughts broken into pieces, as usual, by the run—ghosts are real. It didn't even scare her.

            It made her want to run faster. Toward her father—if that's where he was. His image had faded.

            Air came and went to and from the lungs, and lips, and settled the thoughts. Lydia thinking: I'm going to kill myself. I'm going to do it. Not sad, though. I'm in the depths of despair, the line repeating in her mind like a villanelle, because despair was more grownup than sadness, more romantic, more serious. Considering the Nike slogan brought up in cross-country practice: Just do it. That Star Wars quote, too: Do. Or do not. There is no try.

            Trees whizzing by. More trees. And more. Crusty birch bark unfurling from trunks like pencil shavings. Some lilacs growing in a rich person's yard—she wished she had a big modular house like that. Lupines at the edge of the road; steering away from the too-tall grass; snakes were harmless, but ticks were no good; hugging the ditch with the shoes she'd been given from the cross-country coach, Mrs. Danforth, whom Lydia always called Miss Danforth, because she always forgot the difference. Mrs. Danforth, who'd said, "Lyd, you're too good not to run." Lydia ran. Thought about Miss Danforth. Among the other things. Her left arm wrenched back because now Rosie was lagging, leash stretched four feet between them.

            The dog must have been thinking something, too. Old dog—panting, tongue hanging loose, riding the jaw.

            "Come on, girl," said Lydia. "Only been ten minutes, girl." She clucked her tongue. "Please." Rosie sped. "Good girl. Good girl!" Relief.

            Lydia was wearing one of those sporty tank tops that makes your boobs stick out, because it was a size too small; she'd picked it out from Goodwill before Mr. Jones died. He'd brought her there to try it on; would have been mad if he knew it made her boobs stick out, but he hadn't stuck around long enough to find out.

            Last year, he'd said to her, because she was so hyper, always twitching in class, always interrupting, forgetting to raise her hand, list went on: You can go running morning or night. She chose morning, and he took her shopping at Goodwill to motivate with a new shirt—Start this weekend. He'd have her bring the dog, a kind of protection—A girl shouldn't run alone, he'd said. She perused the racks. He waited in the parking lot. She showed him the crumpled shirt she got, back in the parking lot; down the back, big-bold lettering you couldn't miss: Yes, I'm a girl. Yes, I'm an athlete. Yes, I'll kick your butt. She was going to pull the neck down low, so you could see her cleavage better. She didn't tell him that.

            Mr. Jones confessed to Lydia in his carpentry truck, "I was you once—hyper. Goes away if you run, hon." She liked being like him. Cigarette in the ashtray, hand at the wheel. Dog in the flatbed. Wheels rolling on.

            The next day she learned something about the shirt—used to belong to Mary-June, her classmate from away who was rich enough to give away clothes to Goodwill even when they still fit. Mary, seeing her wear it at recess, smiling, had said—"Hey, that was mine!" Lydia—not a fan of Mary or any rich people from away who didn't understand nothing and tried to take the boys you loved—removed the shirt immediately, exposing her sports bra, and snapped the new-old shirt like a towel into the mulched ground beneath the swing-set, puzzling all who witnessed, which was everyone in their grade; stamping the white shirt into the brown dirt with her tennis shoe. Everyone knew a hot temper is what Lydia Jones had. Ears aching. Energy stinging her fingertips—knees and elbows shaking.

            Later, Little Jeffy Smiley who'd been watching would pick up the shirt, dust it off, and shove it inside Lydia's backpack, quickly, so she wouldn't see, and knowing—like Lydia did when she wasn't frazzled—that clothes didn't grow on trees, and nothing did but leaves and some fruit. Watching her dirty the shirt by the swings, he said: "It's gonna' look like you took a shit in that shirt!" He was laughing.

            Mary was looking like she might cry, but she didn't. Quickly turned, headed back to the classroom portable.

            "Good!" said Lydia Jones before remorse set in, "Shirt is shit!"

            Mary was no longer Lydia's archenemy; the boy they both loved was long gone after eighth grade had ended anyway, and when Mary-June confessed to Lydia one day near the end of the school-year that she and Sam Hoffman hadn't kissed after all, Lydia felt empowered by pity, as well as a timeless life lesson that she was learning for the first time: Nobody gets everything they want, even rich people.

            But rich people have better clothes.

            Wearing the top today, this gray June day, Lydia Jones told herself she didn't care if it was once Mary-June's.

            Mile down the road: someone at the Smiley house had made a sign, cut-out letters pasted to a window, that read: It's Okay Not to Be Okay, and Lydia thought she'd take it as such, a sign.

            She and Rose kept on. Passing driveways, yards with John Deere tractors leaking oil, trash-bags ripped apart by crows; in the ditch were used condoms, Bud bottles, broken glass. In the middle of the road: a gigantic bra that'd never fit Lydia—a boring, beige gigantic bra.

            All in the run: Musky air—of pine and skunk. Haze in the pointy trees, moss in the dirt. A black fly in the mouth. Rickety sign—Apple, Maine Population 1,603. Cars zooming; Maine plates—Vacationland.

            She hocked a loogie to make sure the bug was gone, leaving the ditch with her own hot fizz.

            A car following them. Lydia couldn't get a good look. Figured it was Young Arnie Hardy, who was thirty and whom everyone called "Young Arnie", because his brain had stayed at grade five; he was known to trail people from time to time in his car for his own amusement. It was an old farm car registered to ride a few miles around his house: in summer, he collected wildflowers on the roadside and passed them out to anyone. He did this to Lydia once or twice a week these days. Their dads had been best friends, and she thought he felt sorry for her—you knew you'd hit the lowest-low when Arnie Hardy felt sorry for you. Wintertime, it was a bouquet of pinecones, wet with ice, five or six—sometimes just one, though, if the snow was too high to scavenge for more. Arnie was annoying and harmless. You weren't allowed to say retard in front of him, because that's what he was. Plenty said it anyway. She'd heard that some boys liked to tease him real bad, but she'd never seen it firsthand. It was probably just Arnie Hardy trailing her and Rosie now.

            Lydia focused on Rosie. "Come on, girl! Please!" Lydia Jones—needing to run. Rosie—speeding to a quicker trot when begged by the girl, tongue somehow longer than ever, hanging lower. She moved gingerly, smiling, panting, pacing herself, lagging more and more with each passing second; a few swift tugs by Lydia felt more like yanks, came a little too hard. Lydia, with frustration, whistling for Rosie to hurry.

            Each morning they had a quota to meet—at least four miles. It wasn't too hot yet for Rosie. It was June, not August. And it was early, though the sun was up.

            "No excuses!" Lydia called back, to the old black dog.

            Logging trucks skidded past the two, sometimes blaring their horns. Lydia made pumping motions with her arm, grinning. Sometimes she lifted her tank top, flashing a driver, unknowingly lifting the dog's collar with the leash-holding hand, and wondering if that driver would swerve, and hit her; is that how she would die? But she doubted it, because she was wearing a sports bra. Anyway, she didn't want anyone to hit Rosie. Some of the drivers shook their heads at the rascal girl, whose father they knew before he died late winter. Some, merely passing through the remote town of Apple and not really knowing anyone there, let alone Lydia Jones, were jangling along, and just grinning, perceptibly drooling, she could tell, even through the smudged mirror glass of their windshields, which were glazed to opaque sheens from the deflections of the occasional shafts of light.

            That car from before though, disappearing, reappearing. What if it wasn't Young Arnie Hardy? Lydia trying for faster, Rosie holding her back. "Come on!" the girl said to the dog. The car was gone when she'd said it, but she knew it'd be back. Truth was, Lydia hadn't known anything bad to happen in Apple, Maine—not till Mr. Jones died of cancer. Which had made her vigilant for more warning signs of the world giving way.

She needed to run. More since Mr. Jones died. "Scared for no reason," she said between breaths, to herself and to Rosie.

            Lydia's elbows tingling, dog's leash wrapped tight around her fist, and the girl knowing there was nothing to be afraid of, knowing herself enough to see that her fear came from the antsy-ness, whatever it was inside her that made her hyper, like her dad had said he used to be. She needed to run. More since Mr. Jones died. "Scared for no reason," she said between breaths, to herself and to Rosie.

            They sped up, but a moment later, at just the wrong time, Rosie stopped dead in her tracks—so suddenly that Lydia flew back, fell. The girl and the dog weighed the same, and Lydia stood up angrily, staring down at the dog, the ball and chain, and, feeling the familiar rage rise in her chest, she aimed her hand at the dog's grinning face, intending to bring it down there, saying, "We have to run!" But she dropped her hand to her side instead and crumpled to the ground, and said, "I'm sorry. Please forgive me. I'm sorry!" They were at the edge of the road.

            The dog had taken advantage of the pause and lain down for a bit; she licked Lydia's hand, and left out her tongue to catch the breeze. Lydia took a deep breath, and touched the dog's panted tongue with her fingertip, a childish habit, watching it retreat like a separate creature into the mouth; and with a slight rush of endorphins, they stood, deciding to move on by walking.

            Their kneecaps loose and clicking, they headed back toward their trailer, where Lydia was going to feed and water old Rosie, and think about other ways of doing the deed. Of killing herself. But the course of events was interrupted—

            Because there was the car again. Swerved. Then parked at the edge of the road. Facing Lydia, about half a mile from her trailer—it gave out a long, a real hand-down, honk. It wasn't Arnie Hardy's red beater. It was an unrecognizable white sedan. A man inside, smudged by light—who was it, though? Tourist? With Maine plates? Could have been someone up from Portland? He grinned at Lydia—that much she could see—but she gave him the finger, and he drove off honking little beeps this time like Morse code, and whistling.

            "Gross," Lydia said.

            She kept on with the dog, but the car returned. Slid into the ditch, parked so close she felt the heat from the motor on her calves like warm breath. She didn't want to be scared, so she did the thing she thought she'd do if she felt no fear at all; she lifted her tank top to the windshield and flashed the driver. It wasn't fun this time, but she did it to prove a point.

            The man got out—an old, familiar, smiling face, and her whole body relaxed with relief. She was safe. Then overcome with such a high dosage of embarrassment she couldn't see: What have I done? She felt herself shrink and her body fever, because it was Mr. P, homeroom teacher—reader of Anne of Green Gables.

            "Mr. Pater!" she called, normal as she could, voice shaking a little, though. "I didn't think that was your car." His Ford pickup was a fixture at school as prominent as the Warrior Mascot on the gymnasium floor, or the swing set meant for flying.

            He smiled, leaning against the car. "My wife's car," he said. "Mine's in the shop. Hit a deer in the night; or it hit me." He asked her if she wanted a cigarette; he had one lit for himself.

            "Really?" she said. "A cigarette?"

            Rosie was lying low in the ditch, where the ground was cooler, and Lydia dropped the leash to reach for the cigarette. The dog was barely visible in the tall grass.

            "You're graduated now," he said. "Come here," and he lit it for her, like she'd seen men do in old movies, and like she'd seen her dad do for her mom. Like she'd never seen anyone do for her—she wasn't a smoker, until now. She had heard from her mother that ciggies made you less hungry, and she could feel the hunger driving in, hoped it would go away; she eyed the ember. "But don't do those things to cars no more," he said. "You know that ain't safe, Lydia."

            Embarrassment steaming off slowly, Lydia looked at Mr. P, who was changed. At school, he always wore the same button-down shirt that tucked into his belted jeans, as well as a brown tie printed with black moose-shaped silhouettes. And now, just wearing shorts and a t-shirt with the words, Been there, done that, can't remember, he'd lost some sort of adult veneer, and seemed approachable, maybe fun—though not young; he was still ancient, maybe fifty-five. He talked different than he did at school—he didn't talk proper now. Ain't—he'd said. She liked it mostly. But—

            He stood awfully close to her, when usually he kept a good distance at the podium or his desk.

            She took a puff. Coughed. "You sayin' ain't!" she said. "You teach grammar!" Coughed again.

            "Probably forgot all I taught you," he said, shaking his head. He had a plump face, brown eyes that twinkled; white sideburns that extended from thin, chestnut-brown hair. He'd been kind, all the time she knew him, bringing whoopie pies to school for the kids, when their tummies popped from hunger.

            She was only getting hungrier.

            "Hey you got something to eat?" she said. "Just wonderin'."

            All the while—Mrs. Jones asleep on the couch. The air in the house flew with dust. There were smatterings of mouse poop on the kitchen counter, and there were mold clusters at the hinges of the bathroom door, along the caulking for the tub, up the shower curtain, behind the toilet and in their once-spotless sink. There was a pile of mail on the counter that Lydia had brought religiously, daily, from the mailbox. Eventually, after her mother took no notice, Lydia had begun to open the envelopes. Yesterday, she'd found a crisp check. Happy. They'd be rich. Fifty dollars. You could buy a whole month of dinner with that! Dog food too. But she didn't know how to cash a check, which she'd later learn was from life insurance—to insure a life? Their lives? Lydia, though ashamed to do so, had grabbed handfuls of Rosie's food, as she had since last week when the fridge went bare of all the frozen casseroles that had been piled high on their doorstep for weeks following the funeral or shoved into their arms at the Apple Grange where they'd held the wake. Lydia'd saved enough kibble for the next day. She had also tied a note to the dog's collar that read: I am the best dog. If my owners die, take me home and give me tons of toys. Don't let little kids jump on my back. I am very old. If you don't take care of me, you will go to hell.

            Mr. P touched one of Lydia's braids, letting his hands ride down the knots like she'd seen older boys do to older girls behind the big oak at the high school, and he said, "You're a feisty girl, like Anne of Green Gables. Ma's a drunk; daddy's gone; who's left? Lydia Jones—all grown and graduated."

            Lydia laughed, but it sounded faker than she'd meant. He'd lost his smile, and his eyes were stuck to her, even as he headed toward the car real quick "to get you a whoopie pie." He was fumbling from inside the car. There was that disruptive feeling of needing something real bad—food; the hunger had been lingering since she'd stopped running; she was dizzy from the smoke too. And then also needing something that was entirely the opposite: she had the disorienting sense she had to get away from her favorite teacher who wasn't her teacher no more. But the need for food was bigger. So she waited for him in the cold, thick air, breath clogging in and out of her lungs, her throat, her stuffed-up nose; she was panting.

She had the disorienting sense she had to get away from her favorite teacher who wasn't her teacher no more. But the need for food was bigger.

            The dog had been resting in the ditch out of sight this whole time, breathing quick and shallow. Now, she was crouched low and showing the world what Mr. Jones used to call "the mean-ass grin": lips peeled back behind the gums, teeth bared clean, eyes wide, body stiff, hackles high; and up the throat, a growing rumble.

            The dog didn't seem old anymore. And she didn't feel old. Rosie Jones never would forget what Mr. Jones told her the day he brought her Lydia for the first time, a crying baby in a blanket's nest: Always protect her, for as long as you live. Hear me, girl? She had.

            In the distance—Rosie momentarily thought she too saw the ghost of Mr. Jones shimmering in the hot sun. But the dog had cataracts, and knew about tricks of the light.

            "Easy," Lydia said to Rosie Jones, whose vision too had blurred, who saw her father too again, in the form of a desert mirage in the distance, on the road, like in the cartoons. Her father was smiling. Lydia gulped. Starving. "We gotta' eat."

            The dog broke form momentarily to look up at Lydia and lick her lips in perceived acquiescence, to loosen her jaw and let out a yawn that closed with a whine; but she sensed something wrong and, unsatisfied by the command of the human, returned to form as fast as she'd left it, crouched in the tall grass. Mr. Jones or his mirage was laughing in the distance.

            Mr. P didn't notice Rosie, the mirage, or what could have been a real ghost of Mr. Jones. (Only way to know he was a ghost would be to see him when she was not hungry, thought Lydia.)

            "Door was left open all this time we been talkin'," Mr. P said, slamming it shut and turning back to Lydia. He didn't have any food with him. But he had three crumpled bills. "Money honey?" he said, arm extended, palm up, bills fluttering.

            Lydia took the money before it blew away, and she stuffed it into her shoe, behind her sock, and beneath the heel where it was safe. "No food?" she said. She was ashamed to ask again but too hungry to keep quiet about it.

            Mr. Pater was staring at her boldly—eyes wide, almost black from the pupils being so big. "Can't leave the door open or the battery will die," he said. And that was when he transformed completely, dropping his pants and revealing his penis from behind the flap in his cotton tighty-whities with a sort of expert's speed, aiming the tip of it at the girl who was standing about five feet away. Rubbing it up and down with his hand, he said, "This is my most prized possession."

            She should have run but was too busy feeling her heart break: Oh no, not you, thought Lydia Jones.

            In real life, she said, "That thing is?" Heart beating fast, pulsing up by the jugular. The penis was small. First one she'd seen. Looked like a giant thumb really. She couldn't help but say out loud, "That's smaller than I thought it'd be."

            A short pause. Mr. Jones's mirage still watching, smiling; but shaking his head now, and moving forward—fast now—he lunged and pushed Mr. P into the ditch, on top of Rosie, who bit him in the ass.

            Maybe Mr. P had actually just tripped on his own pants. Maybe it was the mirage of hunger that pushed him. Maybe it was the dog. Or a new power rising in Lydia Jones at the edge of the Route 3. The realization that she could protect herself, if barely, with the dog near.

            Was barely enough to live on? That question lingered at the edge of the road too.

            Mr. P's face turning red, redder as he stood, brushed his bloody knee, staring down the dog who'd bit him there, then back at Lydia; veins growing fat from the skull—there was a thick one that split his forehead right up the middle, and Lydia wondered if it would pop like the time Jeffy Smiley filled his bike tire with too much air. Bang.

            Mr. P said, voice low, half-growl, "That's what I thought. Trailer trash like your daddy, like all the Joneses there ever was."

            Pulling up his pants, he was heading toward her, belt undone, buckle hanging. Rosie was barking, lunging again; Mr. Jones's mirage was gone now—or no one could see him, because no one was looking.

            Because Lydia was turning fast, yanking the dog by the neck and away from her target; the four-legged animal was tripping at first, but then going, going; about a half-mile they had to run home, and as they ran, Lydia called, "Rosie! Hurry. Please!" The cigarette dropped from the girl's hand and tumbled behind them.

            Mr. Jones wouldn't appear like that again—another sadness, but unlike suffering, it would prove temporary.

            That hunger was ending.

            "Rosie! Come!"

            Dog did as told.

            They could hear him in the distance, Mr. P, calling out, "Whore, cunt, bitch," again and again. The same voice that used to read Anne of Green Gables.

            But they were cutting through the field, where cars couldn't drive, and where the old man couldn't run, and where the only things to fear were ticks.

            At home. Catching her breath in the kitchen, Lydia Jones leaned against the counter, trampled by her thoughts that couldn't stop so soon. She was realizing that one person could be two people. That the same person in winter was a different one in summer; that changing yourself changed the people around you. And that Apple, Maine was a funhouse—the kind with all the mirrors she'd heard came to the State Fair in Bangor— with each person in it a separate mirror. If someone disappeared, you saw a new side to everyone.

            Whore cunt bitch, still in her brain, stuck there like a guilt-trip—didn't know how to get rid of it; felt like weakness, and anyways, why should she feel guilty? Tried to move it aside, the feeling—she was rubbing her fingertips on her temple. It was an anxiety that had risen to a headache, but there was food to think on now. There were nine pieces of kibble left, and the girl took two for herself. Had to. Rosie was standing close, old again, eyeballs wet, panting. Lydia filled a cup of cloudy water to wash away the dog food she herself had eaten; the dizzy hunger gone for now. She held the remaining kibbles under the faucet, soaking them in her hands, softening them because Rosie's teeth were rotted. Placed the food on the floor, and the old dog tongued it slowly, looked up grinning for more.

            "Sorry, girl."

            Lydia went back to Route 3, this time sans Rosie. She was going to Hardy's Hardware; she'd kept the three crumpled ones from Mr. P in her shoe. She could have used it for food—for her or Rosie—but figured it wasn't worth delaying what she'd set out to do. She would buy a rope that could be a noose. She'd left the "will" for Rosie—she knew what a will was because that's what her dad made, leaving them the trailer. Rose was to stay with the kindest boy in town, the retard Arnie Hardy.

            That, Lydia was certain, would take care of them all.   

            On Route 3 again walking, knees clicking again. Alone, scared, but Hardy's Hardware was close. Just a quarter-mile the other way down the road. Plus, she'd brought a knife this time, a steak one in case Mr. P came back.

            At Hardy's Hardware, she dropped a thick coil of yellow rope onto the countertop. Mr. Hardy was a fat man with a ruddy-red face and crystal-blue eyes, and might have been a handsome man in a parallel universe, or just when he was younger. He was used to defining himself through his simple son, Young Arnie Hardy. And of course he was her dad's best friend, when her dad was alive.

            He looked at the skinny girl in her tank top and shorts, felt a deep sadness hit his chest, suddenly. She was very thin. Had a black eye. A black eye—from God knew what. Her shoulder stuck from her top like a skeleton bone. He thought of Mr. Jones—missed his fishing buddy, best friend since grade one; not to mention colleague of sorts: Jones Carpentry brought business to Hardy's Hardware, summer folk. Hardy was handicapped. Cane and all. War wound in the right leg made it useless. He'd always thought himself a useless old man, Mr. Hardy did, even when he was young. Mr. Jones always reminded him he was a good father—that Young Arnie was a lot of work, always getting into scrapes, coming home with a broken nose, sometimes worse, at least twice each summer.

            Hardy said, "It's forty degrees outside!"

            "It's June," said Lydia.

            "It's forty degrees, dear." Mr. Hardy was shaking his head, and ringing up the rope, which came out to four dollars and change.

            Lydia smacked the counter, palm down, leaving the three crumpled ones. Mr. Hardy pressed a button that flung open the drawer of the register, where he placed the money inside.

            Lydia took the rope.

            "What are you doin' with that?" he said, trying to delay the girl's exit. It didn't take much to sense something was awry at the Jones's that was a little more than grieving. The girl was starving, clearly.

            She looked at him looking at her and winced; the chain of events with Mr. P was stuck to her like dawn's fog, even though she knew in her heart that Hardy was good; her dad's friend. He had seen her black eye, she could tell. She didn't know how skinny she'd got, because that had been a gradual thing. But she knew he'd seen her eye. At first the black eye had made her feel good, powerful in a way, strong—a sign of how she'd stood up to her pain—but now it just seemed to implicate her in some sort of crime that had been thrust upon her, a bold shiner; a weakness. She was embarrassed.

            "Gonna' make a rope ladder?" he said.

            He just didn't know what to say.


            "Want a receipt?" he said. The girl hadn't seemed to hear, focused on the rope, feeling its braid between her fingers.

            "Want a receipt?" he said again.

            "No thanks."

            She looked down. She was going to cry if she looked at him. She wouldn't cry. If she cried, he would try to hug her. She didn't want that.

            "How's your ma?" he said.


            "How's Rosie?"

            "Dumb dog."

            "Plans for the summah?" He deepened his accent affectionately.

            She held up the rope crassly, eyes down still. Mr. Hardy was the kind of man who smelled like pancakes and maple syrup and reminded you of better times. She looked up. A reflex of sorts. Their eyes met; her heart stung.

            "Don't you talk no more?" Mr. Hardy winked. "I remember you was always a real talker. Always gabbing."

            He had been missing his eyeteeth for a long time, and his lips had drawn inward to replace the gaps; she focused on the gaps, which had always repulsed her, so she wouldn't cry. The more he spoke the more she could smell his rotted breath. "Gross," said Lydia, turning with the rope suddenly, and slamming the door behind her. Not before stealing a 25-cent mint from the countertop.

There was always an excuse, a problem greater than another. Where did kindness fit in, in a totem pole of hurt, and who got helped first? 

            Mr. Hardy sighed, head in his hands. He hadn't gone to their home, hadn't taken care of the girls. Like he'd promised Mr. Jones he'd do. Guilty of living his life. His own problems. Always having to shut down the shop when he'd get a phone call that Arnie was getting teased again; found him just yesterday tied to a fence out on the Bay Ridge road; the flowers he'd picked beside him, his shoes off, an apple in his mouth for no reason he could tell, but he was smiling as soon as the apple was out. Luckily, no real wounds, but Hardy worried. Always worried. Couldn't be everywhere at once. Not to mention, he would be going bankrupt if the contractors for the summer homes didn't come in to buy nothin' soon—was it a late season, or was it that no one was comin' at all this year? There was always an excuse, a problem greater than another. Where did kindness fit in, in a totem pole of hurt, and who got helped first? Sometimes you had to forget your own troubles, as though they didn't exist, he told himself. He was crying. Picked up his phone, dialed his wife, to whom he said, "It ain't my business, but…" the flash in his mind, the image of the girl, the skeleton bones. He and his wife spoke for a time.

            Hadn't been a churchgoer in a long time, but in dialing the Jones's trailer next, he thought, Lord forgive me, before the girl picked up—

            Lord help me—before clearing his throat, speaking.  

            On her way home, walking in the ditch, Lydia felt the cool mint saliva stream into her belly. She tried to bend the rope into the shape of a noose, but she didn't know how. Or what that really looked like. Plus, the rope was slippery, sheathed in a plastic coating; no matter how she tried to bend it, it kept flipping back into its former shape, a mere coil, before she could knot it.

            Thought she saw Mr. P's car again. She took the shortcut through the tall grass, behind the Smiley house and their sign, It's Okay Not to Be Okay, and back to her trailer—she didn't walk; she ran. She didn't look back. She locked the door behind her and drew all the curtains. An adrenaline inside her—she had to wonder if she did want to live. But, she resolved, she didn't—she wanted to have control over how it happened was all.

            Rosie sniffing the backs of her knees. "Good girl." Following Lydia to the phone, which was ringing.

            Mrs. Jones still sleeping, Lydia picked it up.

            Was Mr. Hardy.

            "Everything okay?" He didn't say hello, just jumped right in.

            "Leave us alone," said Lydia Jones. Skittish.

            "Can you put your ma on?"

            "She's sleeping," said Lydia.

            "It's noon PM. Wake her, dear."

            Lydia sighed. Went over to Mrs. Jones on the couch, pushed her thick body, which grunted.

            "I think she farted!" Lydia said into the phone, laughing.

            Mr. Hardy said he was going to come sit with her mom for a while, shut down the store for a bit, asked Lydia if that sounded all right. It would interfere with Lydia's plans to kill herself, but she decided that was all right, because she needed more time to figure out how. The noose thing seemed like a set up to fail.

            Before Mr. Hardy arrived, Lydia went to the kitchen and thought about using one of the sharper knives on herself. She had found one in the drawer that seemed sharp enough; the others were rusted, unfortunately, including the steak knife—she didn't mind using a dull blade on an enemy, but she had hoped her own demise would be a merciful transition to Heaven.

            She pressed the blade of the sharpish knife to her forearm—she didn't really know how to do what she wanted to do, and figured the forearm seemed right. She felt the blade on her wrist; it was cool; her skin seemed tan despite the cold June, but it was also mottled purple. The arms on her hairs had risen, and she cut a few with the knife, which hurt in and of itself but was interesting. From the corner of the living room, Rosie was watching her, curled into circle-formation on a couch cushion that Lydia had told her she could use as a bed; she'd covered it with an old sheet. The dog's yellow eyes studied her.

            "Don't," Lydia said, but she put down the knife. "Don't look at me."

            She didn't see her father again, but she felt him, behind the old dog's eyes.

            Mr. Hardy arrived, pulled open the screen door without asking to come in.

            Lydia jumped at the sound. "Get out!" she said, moving toward the door.

            But he didn't listen. Just hobbled on through with that cane, back bent at a hard angle.

            She was lightheaded, so hungry now, and wanted to teach him a lesson. "Get out, cripple," she said. In the way she'd heard someone call Little Jeffy Smiley a faggot. In the way Mr. P had called her a whore. The power of such meanness—she felt that. She liked that. Seemed to her she'd earned it. Kept going with it, "Useless cripple!"

            As he leaned on his cane and scanned the room, she thought she saw his face contort, and in a split-second she was tired, hugging the edge of the couch, on which, through it all, her mother slept.

            The dog, uncertain, pretended to sleep in the corner, but Lydia could see her brown eyebrows moving, the eyelids almost cracked apart.

            Hardy checked the fridge. Closed his eyes and shook his head. Went over to Mrs. Jones. He shook her shoulder with his free hand. "Wake up, hon," he said. "It's half past noon already, and you ain't got no food in this house. From the looks of it." Flies buzzed around him, and the rotten trash; inside the can, maggots squirmed. He couldn't finish his sentence—he dragged the trash out to the yard, wincing; Lydia watched from the window, wiping her eyes. Hardy could use only one hand, of course, to carry the big bag, which he couldn't tie shut, and so when he dropped it by accident, all their old trash spilled along the marshy grass. When he bent to pick some up, he just couldn't, pain searing up his leg, through his spine, and, like a firework, everywhere.

            He came back inside and stood for a moment, hand to forehead, when Mrs. Jones blinked. Her eyes were red. She sat up, coughed. Saw Lydia, felt a dreaded pain. Mr. Hardy came into focus but barely. "Get me my glasses, will ya'?" Mrs. Jones said to Lydia, who immediately rushed the glasses to her mother and said, "Yes, Mama," after having already given them to her. At the sight of her mother awake, Lydia felt a strange euphoria. She'd missed her mom. She'd been sleeping for months, felt like.

            "Look at this sleeping beauty!" Lydia said to no one in particular, pointing to her mother. She had heard her father make jokes like that when her mom slept in too late. But nobody laughed this time.

            "The skin is peeling off my eyes, feels like. I've been crying for so long," said Mrs. Jones.

            Mr. Hardy said, "I want you girls to come stay with me and Mrs. Hardy and Arnie for a little while. Just a coupla' weeks. Maybe the summah. Maybe we can help you clean up this place and rent it to some summah people. Make a few bucks. Who ain't gonna' love a place like this, so close to the water?"

            Mrs. Jones crying. And Lydia, stomach tight, didn't know, but said, "You got food?" Heart skipping beats.

            The dog, still in the corner, had shed the pretense of sleep. She hadn't come over to see Mr. Hardy, but she was watching them, tail thumping. The dog felt something primal in her heart, a clean desire to go to the man, but she was never sure what to do without Mr. Jones's command, and now that he was gone, she waited for Lydia to direct her; often that took some time.

            "I'm so embarrassed," said Mrs. Jones.

            "Don't be," said Mr. Hardy.

            Lydia wanted the dog close, and she said, "Rosie, you shy old girl," clucking her tongue and lifting her voice to a coo. "C'mon, sweet girly." Lydia looked at Mr. Hardy and said, "Don't mind Rosie. She's a retard." She let it slip before remembering you weren't supposed to say that word in front of the Hardys, but Mr. Hardy didn't bat an eyelash.

            "I know old Rose," said Mr. Hardy. "She and I go back a-ways. Smart as a whip—that dog there. Don't you remember me?" said Mr. Hardy to the dog.

            Rosie skulked over to him from the corner of the room—tail low and wagging, neck down, head angled up shyly. She did remember him.

            In the car, it was Mr. Hardy, Lydia, Mrs. Jones and Rosie. Ladies in the back, dog up front by Mr. Hardy. The seats they chose. The inside of the old Subaru smelled like the green pine tree-shaped air freshener that swung from the rearview mirror and the overflow of garbage bags left in the back because Mr. Hardy had to run them to the transfer station still—was sorry about the smell, he said.

            Car backing out, Mrs. Jones saw their own trash on the lawn and said, "Lydia Jones, what did you do?" She was really mad. "You know better'n to dump that there! Bear bait!"

            "Angie," said Hardy to Mrs. Jones, about to confess, but before he could—

            "Sorry, Mama," said Lydia Jones.

            "You'll clean it up yourself," said Mrs. Jones.

            "Yes, Mama."

            Mr. Hardy, hardly able to hide his embarrassment, cleared his throat real loud—making a sound like someone with tonsillitis, and rolling down the window to hock a loogie into the road. Clearing his throat again after. "'Scuse me, ladies," he said.

            "You're too hyper," said Mrs. Jones.

            "I know," said Lydia. Topic changing, noting Mr. Hardy's eyes in the rearview mirror, she was grateful. Thing was, though: "We didn't need you to rescue us."

            He took a deep breath. A new wave of usefulness. Though she'd said he was useless, he knew she was wrong. Girl was proud. Like her dad. "Just helping friends," said Mr. Hardy. "You'd do the same." He knew she would, like her dad.

            "We can take care of ourselves," she said, staring out the window as the trees breezed past; they were going faster than Lydia and Rosie had ever gone before while running.

            "I know it," said Mr. Hardy, eyes on the road.

            Mrs. Jones said nothing but was crying again.

            Mr. Hardy glanced again at the rearview mirror. He was afraid of what Mrs. Hardy would say when she saw the girl, skull-eyes, big shiner on one. He had done a bad thing, not coming sooner. He'd give all his meals to the Jones girls, now on. Lord help me, he said to himself again or to God if there was one.

            "Everything was under control. We didn't need you." She was sleepy.

            "Don't I know it," said Mr. Hardy, without any hint of sarcasm, though Lydia was attuned to it.

            She was scared to live with the Hardys. But looking forward to the food—she began to dream of whatever they would eat for dinner, warm and good. Hardly mattered what.

She was scared to live with the Hardys. But looking forward to the food—she began to dream of whatever they would eat for dinner, warm and good. Hardly mattered what.

            Hardy still gabbing, though, keepin' her up: "Time to think on school. High school soon enough!" He said, grinning in the rearview mirror, his sunken cheeks pulled back.

            She frowned and closed her eyes to the image. "Still summer break," she said.

            But that night in the Hardys' spare bed with her ma and her dog beneath a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars, Lydia thought maybe high school would be okay. They were in Arnie's room, because he had offered to stay in the shed for the summer, until October or November when first frost set in.

            Amazing what a meal could do. Her tummy full of shepherd's pie, all the blood had rushed there, leaving her brain-thoughts thick and sweet. She clenched the muscles of her legs, stretching them, aiming her toes toward the foot of the bed, where they didn't reach; joints cracking, loosening. Felt her eye with her fingertips, the puff deflating.

            They were going to rake blueberries this summer, make some money. Maybe go to Wal-Mart and buy some new tops, brand-new.

            The Hardys lived by the tiny airport, mostly used by tourists with private jets. In bed, Lydia was hearing their engines buzz, taking off to God knew where. The airport lights were shaped like cones, alien lights is what Arnie called them, shooting up through the mist, leaking through the curtained windows, the square panes; leaving slabs of yolk-white light on the comforter and the dog, who couldn't sleep because of it.

            Rosie's yellow eyes were wide in the dark. From the foot of the bed, they were aimed at Lydia.

            "Always starin' at me, ain't ya', girl?"

            The old dog blinked, and Lydia's heart seized.

            "Never die, girl."

Marni Berger holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University and a BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. Her most recent short story "Waterside" was published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Glimmer Train. Her fiction has been a finalist or received honorable mention in seven Glimmer Train contests and one New Millennium Writings contest. Her work has also appeared at The Common, The Days of Yore, The Millions, and Fringe Magazine. Marni's novel-in-progress, Love Will Make You Invincible, is a dark comedy about a precocious tween, who, refusing to believe his long lost father has committed suicide, instead becomes convinced that his father is a citizen of a secret underwater village.