He pushed his way in through the door that was held shut more by wild grapes and morning glory vines than any lock. Halfway open the top hinge silently pulled out of the punky frame and the door hung all cattywampus, never to be closed again. The inside was dim, the windows, broke or not, obscured by the thick honeysuckle vines that had already reclaimed the outhouse in back.
The forgotten rose pattern wallpaper hung in sheets dripping to the floor exposing the rotten watermarked drywall. Every shuffling step he took was answered by skittering in the walls that was either mice or chippies. In the middle of the floor, right where that rickety coffee table woulda been, was a hole down to the dirt-easy access for whatever groundhogs or racoons lived here.
Emily and ‘em had tried to remodel after the fire but money bein’ what it was back then-mostly lacking- left soon after. If she were dead, she would haunt this place, he was sure. But she wasn’t dead as far as he knew. Jist gone. Never to return in life and he wondered if he’d still be around to come and check after.
It had been a four-mile bike ride that Sunday morning, up over his ridge then down the rocks of dry Rooker crick, across the old logging trail then finally the red-dog flat of the river road. The dump-rescued Schwinn with the mismatched tires made the time quick, even with the book bag strapped across his back. Goin’ back would be tougher, but he’d worry about that later. Pretty much that way with everthing; later would take care a’ itself.
The Brant girls, living as they did just one ridge over, were as close to neighbors as any he had in school. They were the first ones for the school bus, huddled in the shelter at the head of the paved road, and the last ones off. Emily was his age-or in his grade at least-Susan a year younger though she didn’t seem it. Them, him and Emily, settin’ together on the bus now and again, wasn’t much a’ anything. He wasn’t much of a talker and neither was she. They’d set.
The river road turned to rutted dirt about a mile from the Brant’s house. He, and everbody else, still thought of it as the Brant’s cause that was the girl’s names. And their mother Missy-who Emily favored with her round cheeks and crinkly brown hair. Jimmy Logan, the girl’s stepdad, or more likely Missy’s live-in, had no part in any of their names.
Off the bike he felt the heaviness in the air-still as the inside of a bottle. Rather than open the whole gate for just him and his bike, he leaned it against a post and ducked between the two lower strands of bob wire. Had he opened the gate they might have heard him. It might’ve changed things. But he doubted it. As it was, he stopped halfway to the house, to this day not sure if he heard something in back. But he must have.
He snuck around the upstream side, because the closer he got and the more he heard, sneakin’ seemed the best course. At the corner of the place, he stuck his face through the branches of the big rhododendron, there it all was.
It was Susan closest to him. Emily herself out the further end of the bench. Course he was assuming because as they were-bent over the bench, their bottoms to him-he couldn’t see their faces. Both were bare-assed, Susan’s pants bunched at her feet and Emily’s skirt thrown up over her back. Both backsides showed hard use of Jimmy Logan’s strap. That moment, his attention was focused on Susan, whipping her hard-each slash met with a grunt as if she didn’t want to cry out. And her not crying pissed him off.
He couldn’t tell what Emily said to her sister, but it was something. And maybe Jimmy didn’t like it or maybe it was just her turn, cause he slid down a step or two and whipped the strap hard across Emily’s round backside. Her butt bounced at the force of it and her legs shivered when she tried to stay still. She wasn’t as good at being quiet as her sister and cried out over the river at every wicked stroke. He set himself, crouching by the bush as he was, and leaned on his back leg ready to launch himself forward. But the harsh crack of the belt-the violence of it-and Emily’s pained cries stopped him.
Fuckin’ stopped him dead, he thought looking through a sumac that grew through the back porch toward where the bench had been. He kicked at what looked like a balled-up rag on the ruined floor with the toe of his hunting boot. Turned out to be a dead squirrel-weightless and mummified by the heat of summer. He spit. What if he had…aw, fuck it. What good did it do now…
What he did do then was spin around and head back out the yard careful to stay on the low side of the road looking back over his shoulder to make sure nobody could see. The thick air of the hollow swallowed all sound and he peddled like a thief until he was a good bit down the road. Then he stopped. And listened.
Quickly he dropped his bike and flopped in the ditch with every manner of tick, chigger and spider as Jimmy Logan banged past in his puttied-up old work van going every bit twice as fast as he should have on that sorry road. Gnats whined, diving into his eyes and ears but he waited, unmoving, the grass tickling his nose, the thick air itself ticking, until the dust settled in Jimmy’s wake. Then, he stood up carefully and dusted himself off, chasing a cricket off his pants and a grasshopper off his shoulder. With one more look up the road for good measure he headed back to Emily’s house.