Two Things From a Burning House

by JESSE GOOLSBY

Sixteen year-old Fallynne is still hung over from her older sister Shannon’s going-away party the night before, so she pops her birth control pill and pours herself some Lucky Charms and stares out the square kitchen window at the first swells of the Rocky Mountains. It’s late July, the time of year the Biglow house needs the air conditioning it lacks, but the high country mornings are still cool enough for her sweatpants and a faded orange Broncos shirt. Her parents sleep upstairs and Fallynne figures her sister is screwing her boyfriend Kyle one last time before saying goodbye. She doesn’t know what time the Army recruiter is due at their house, and it surprises her that the military provides front-door pickup service, but she figures she has a couple hours before she waves Shannon off to basic training.

Fallynne wasn’t surprised when Shannon said she would enlist. Both of their parents were career Army, still fully limbed, now collecting decent enough retirements. Sure, there were wars, but they couldn’t last forever. Who knows, maybe it’s the perfect time to join: hit the downturn of our Middle East adventure and slide into a pocket of peace for 20 years and train your way to medals and rank and a nice two-story outside Castle Rock, Colorado. Fallynne’s father—a black haired drunk who hides it well—smiled when Shannon strolled home with the I enlisted news, patting her on the back with an “It’s your call, honey.”

Fallynne sits on a worn bar stool and spoons her cereal up to her mouth and feels her mind working hard weaving together the previous night’s party. She knows there’ll be questions, and most likely, consequences. Her parents had hit the tequila hard, and Fallynne perked up when her mother—a six-foot, tired woman who angers when drinking—handed her a Bud Light. It’s not her favorite, but it felt good in the group party heat of their basement. Five beers later she let a boy with black fingernails fondle her breasts in a downstairs closet next to a broken-down pinball machine, and opening her eyes at the sound of the closet door her sweating mother appeared, already in mid-punch. Her mother had finished the bottle of Cuervo and missed the ducking boy. Within minutes her fist began the severe swelling knuckles produce after hitting a stud straight on. In the morning silence Fallynne considers the irony of her mother swinging at the preservation of a virginity that had been lost two years before on a school trip to Yellowstone. She smiles at the kitchen cabinets.

Shannon is halfway down the stairs when Fallynne spots her and shoots a half nod, but Shannon doesn’t return the glance, and glides past Fallynne and slips into their mother’s light blue jacket.

“Big day,” Fallynne says. “Could all be downhill.” Shannon opens the door and walks out into the clear morning.

As Fallynne rinses her bowl she hears the stairs creak and prays that it’s her father. Her father will laugh last night off, but her mother is a different monster. Her mother alternates trying to save her daughters from themselves by dishing out sincere, over-the-top cruelty and then, as if an alternate person all together, acts like she’s given up hope and ignores both of them at length. Fallynne isn’t ready to talk about the boy in the closet—his name is Raul—and if the encounter goes the day without being addressed, it might never be, but as she turns to the sound it’s her mother who approaches with the stern face Fallynne knows houses a lecture.

“You don’t know where your sister is,” she says, blowing a toothpaste/Tequila exhale.

“She went outside.”

“You don’t know where she is.”

“You’re asking me?” Fallynne says, confused. Her mother leans in.

“I’m not asking. You don’t know where she is. No matter who comes calling. You don’t know.”

“Jesus. I don’t know where she is. Fine. She’s lost.”

Fallynne turns away, but her face tilts back toward her mother.

“Is this about the recruiter?” Fallynne asks.

Her mother has never hit her, but Fallynne thinks she might. Her neck veins throb and she grabs Fallynne’s shoulder, hard at first, but quickly eases the grip. She’s seized Fallynne with the injured hand, and Fallynne sees her mother’s mouth draw tight.

“Your sister is an adult,” she says, flexing her fingers in and out. “She makes her own moves.” A breath. “And this is the most important part. She’s not a whore.”

In the future, during moments of drunkenness, Fallynne will remember this moment and practice strong-worded, clever retorts, but in real time she feels the air leave her body and she comes to feeling her hands at her face, fingers pinching her thin cheeks. Her mother stands morning sober in front of her. Her eyes lack their usual redness, her body having given up the fight against the hard stuff.

“Is this when we talk about Yellowstone?” It’s her father’s voice. She had only told Shannon about losing her virginity, so her father’s words waft in the room a bit before Fallynne sucks them in. The air thickens around her mouth and nose, and her feet disappear beneath her.

“Yellowstone,” he says. “Bears and moose and boys.” Her father smiles oddly, with just the corners of his mouth. He’s bleeding through torn touches of Kleenex along his jaw line.

“I told him the night Shannon told me,” her mother says, placing her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “You should know that. It’s what parents do. He didn’t believe it until last night when I caught you jacking off that freak in the closet.”

The room slants slightly and Fallynne thinks of the shotgun in her parent’s closet, but she can’t recall the case combination, then the park where she told Shannon—they were swinging in winter and Shannon had playfully placed her ear on Fallynne’s belly—and then, involuntary, she considers her first period, reaching down into her pants in a Safeway bathroom.

“Have you screwed people in my home?” her mother asks.

Fallynne had, twice. She stares at the beige tile floor and considers Shannon and Kyle, the hundreds of sessions they’d had in this very house, on Shannon’s pink comforter under the Twilight posters, and then she wonders why she cares if her parents know—she has no moral pretense, no angel reputation, no great grades or letters of recommendation headed her way. And really, fourteen doesn’t seem that young to her. She knows girls eleven and twelveyears- old that let the word get out. At other schools, girls go as far as wearing bracelets that clue boys in to their sexual status and availability. And yet, Fallynne senses her body folding in on itself, and it angers her that she still cares what her parents think, and it angers her that she can’t think of anything to say. And again, the mental image, the surprise of brownish blood on her fingertips, of the Safeway around the corner, the area next to the checkout where her mother sniffed at a green bottle of Brut aftershave as Fallynne stepped out of the restroom and ran to her mother to tell her the news; and her mother, near tears, taking Fallynne in her arms, repeating, “My girl, my big girl,” before walking together to the maxi pads and pointing to the ones she’d seen commercials for. Was this the last time her mother had been proud? Over something she had no control over?

And then back to the kitchen, to her parents, to the morning hangover. Fallynne has forgotten the question, but she hears herself say, “My body was ready.” She doesn’t think the words before they arrive, but here they are. Her father’s mouth opens, and Fallynne embraces a surge of excitement when nothing comes out. “My body was ready,” she says a little louder. Silence. Neither her mother nor father appears ready to argue. Her father touches one of the tiny circles of bloodied Kleenex on his chin then folds his arms.

“Damn,” he says, but that’s all, and as he turns away, surprisingly, so does her mother, and as they climb the stairs her mother stops and looks back, but not at Fallynne. Her mother scans the living room, and then locks her eyes on the oak front door as if it has been moved slightly and she wants to remember where it is when she comes back down the steps. Fallynne doesn’t know how old her mother was when she lost her virginity, and she realizes that they’ve never had the sex talk, or really any talk of substance for some time. Fallynne thinks, when I have a child they’ll know everything. And much later, Fallynne will tell her daughter everything, she’ll talk to her about sex and blood and regret, and Fallynne will drive her daughter to the clinic for her daughter’s abortion and stroke her hair as the drugs wear off. But today, Fallynne tugs her sweatpants down below her hip bones, and watches her mother shake her head and kiss her fingers and touch Fallynne’s third grade photo hanging half way up the stairs.

Twenty minutes later Fallynne moves her hands in a ray of dusty sunlight that beams through the crack in the living room drapes. She thinks of taking her blue baseball bat to Shannon’s healthy knees. That traitor bitch. She visualizes Shannon’s lifelong limp and grins. But the dream evaporates as her parents pound down the stairs with luggage.

“We’re going to Estes,” her mother says. “Don’t call. You’re a big shot. You and your sister can do what the hell you want.” And she disappears into the garage.

Before her father leaves he grabs a bottle of Beam and tucks it into his duffle bag. Rash-like little bumps of dried blood dot his jaw.

“Yellowstone?” he says. Then, in a drawn out falsetto Fallynne-voice mock, “My body is ready.” He shakes his head. “Good luck with that.” And out he goes.

Fallynne watches the maroon sedan pull out of the garage and for a few seconds she sees her mother laughing and her father’s mouth move, and she wonders if he’s retelling his parting words to her. And as they disappear Fallynne slides her vision over to their neighbor’s house: the Burton’s redbricked home, the Aspen, hedge, and prairie grass landscaping, a Toyota truck in the driveway with an “I’m proud of my Eagle Scout” bumper sticker. She guesses this is Shannon’s hideout. Not one to normally question, or even consider, the morality of adult-level commitment, Fallynne wonders if everyone has gone crazy. How is her sister able to walk just feet away from her Army obligation, and no one blinks an eye? Not her Army parents, not her freaking Eagle Scout neighbors? She thinks of Shannon in the Burton’s basement, probably already comfortable and confident, and nosey Mrs. Burton eyeing the roadway, ready to protect the big bad military from taking their innocent neighbor. Never mind Shannon signed up herself. And then, it comes to her. Fallynne brushes away the bat-to-the-knee revenge and frames a new, more enticing proposition. She turns the television on and gets comfortable with an eye on the driveway. Screw her mother, she knows exactly where Shannon is, and when it’s time, so will the recruiter.

It takes four reruns of Saved by the Bell, and a full fruit juicer infomercial before the green and white Ford Taurus pulls up to their home. Before the uniformed man can exit the vehicle, Fallynne stands in her front yard, smiling. The recruiter is younger and shorter than she imagined, with pudgy cheeks and a limp.

“Shannon’s next door,” she says as he reaches their driveway.

“Okay.”

“She’s hiding, but she’s over there. It’s the Burton’s place.”

Fallynne steps toward their neighbors, but the man doesn’t move.

“Your folks here?”

“No.”

The recruiter removes his hat and breathes. He’s done this before. He scratches at his neck.

“Why don’t you go get Shannon so we can talk,” he says, lowering his voice a half-octave. “I’ll wait here.”

“She won’t come if it’s me. That’s the point.” Fallynne overhears her own eagerness, and tries to dial it back. Unknowingly, she plays with the draw strings of her sweats. “Besides, doesn’t she have to go?”

“You want her to go?”

She knows the answer, but she waits for the right words. Before she can comment he asks, “How old are you?”

Fallynne watches his eyes dart to her torso. A warmth fills her chest. “I’m in high school.” A pause. “How old are you?”

“Okay.” He gazes up into the cloudless morning and taps his foot. “Listen. I’m happy to talk to your sister, but I’m here for pick-up, not deliberation. If you want to get her, great. If not, she can give me a call.” He hands her a card. “I have other stops today.” When Fallynne stays in place, he nods his head, limps around to the driver’s side, gets in, and drives off.

When Fallynne wakes it’s late afternoon, and she rubs at her sweaty neck and pulls herself up from the leather couch. The house is quiet. As she comes to she recalls her morning anger, and it quickly rises in her again—a complicated rush of anxiety—and the impulse for revenge, but for who, and how?

Raul arrives at her house twenty minutes after she calls him. She can hear the old, lifted Ford 4x4 from around the corner, and when he pulls into her driveway she notices the purple driver’s side fender on an otherwise faded red truck. He wears a bright orange hunting vest over a black shirt, and cargo shorts.

“Get me out of here for awhile,” she says.

“I know where there’s some water.”

She doesn’t say much until they hit Sedalia and turn west onto Jarre Canyon Road, and when the road turns up into the Rockies she feels her shoulders relax. Their dalliance last night hadn’t been their first, but their relationship, if it could be called that, was one of lazy convenience. She imagines that he doesn’t think of her often, but when he does, it’s fondly, mainly because that’s how she thinks of him.

Fallynne leaves off the parent-virginity surprise, but rattles on about her sister and the Army, how Shannon betrayed her—she leaves it unspecified—and wonders out loud what she could do for revenge. Raul hasn’t said much, and this fits Fallynne’s picture of him: quiet, odd dresser, with a confidence and intelligence that allows him to stay at the top of their class despite his frequent, unexplained absences. As he drives she watches his eyes dart to his rearview mirror, then to the side mirrors, and back to the road. It’s a routine he performs every thirty seconds or so.

“You could lock her out,” he says in a Southern drawl, a tone that still surprises her. For all she knows he was born and raised in Colorado. “Your parents are gone.”

“Lock her out? She’d be upset for two seconds then go back to the Burton’s.”

“It’s something.”

“Yeah.”

“You could run away.”

“Not much of a revenge move. My folks might like it. They’ve said as much.”

“No parents want that.”

“You’re wrong. Parents don’t have to beat the shit out of you to show they don’t love you.”

“True.”

“Sometimes they just do nothing.”

“But yours get pissed at you. That’s supposed to mean something. It might not be as bad,” but he doesn’t finish his sentence. Instead, without transition: “House is on fire. You can grab two things. Go.”

“Besides people?”

“So you still love them.”

“Don’t screw with me.”

“Fine. What would you take? Everyone gets out okay.”

Fallynne doesn’t answer, and the silence goes for awhile before Raul asks, “Don’t like fire? Okay. A flood.”

They drive, both quiet, south along Highway 67, and the South Platte River joins them, and they watch the fly fishermen in waders whip their lines out and back. Raul cracks his window and the rushing air smells fresh and warm. They pass through Deckers and keep south towards Pikes Peak, and a few miles later Raul pulls the truck over on a meager turnout and turns off the engine.

“Water,” he says, and points at a humble stream down an embankment. It’s maybe six feet across and shallow. “Let’s go.”

Raul grabs a backpack and a dusty wool blanket and leads her down the gentle slope. They pause on the bank of the stream, and Raul excuses himself and comes back with a boulder that he throws in the middle of the water.

“Step.”

They both cross and Raul unfurls the blanket on a level patch of ground partially obstructed from the road by a stand of flowering reeds. He reaches in and pulls out a flask and tosses it to her. She unscrews the top and tilts it back and shakes her head.

“Water?” she says, not all that disappointed.

“I have to drive back.”

Raul pats the blanket beside him. A puff of dust rises.

“I don’t feel like sitting,” Fallynne says, and while she knows what’s on his mind, she pushes it from hers and basks in the high altitude sun. She stands next to the small creek and watches the clear water and smells the pine. The smell-sound reminds her of something from when she was a child; she doesn’t know when or what, but the feeling comforts her. She picks up a smooth rock and tosses it into the stream, and the tiny, but explosive splash makes her laugh. Raul throws one.

“I love rocks,” Raul says.

He sheds his hunting vest and his black shirt then puts the vest back on.

“You look ridiculous,” Fallynne says.

“I do it for attention. It works.”

“Yeah.”

“What do you do for attention?”

“I make out with guys in closets. Then, I have my mom come in and beat the shit out of them. It’s a little routine we’ve perfected.”

Soon, they gather large rocks and throw them in, and before long their efforts focus on building a dam across the stream. The lazy project takes fifteen minutes, and near completion, they decide to leave a space where the water runs unimpeded. Raul had watched something on the Discovery channel decrying dams’ damage on eco-systems.

“You’ve never asked me about my name,” he says as they sit on the blanket. Fallynne crosses her legs and touches his arm.

“What about it?”

“It means wolf counsel.” He growls, claws his left hand, and laughs.

“Who told you that?”

“My parents.”

Fallynne edges closer and places her hand on his.

“Are you trying to be funny?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“You tell the truth too much.”

Raul reaches for her, and she leans in and kisses him, soft at first. She feels warm and electric and reaches down at the bottom of her shirt and teasingly lifts it up, then back down. She loves the look in his eyes, perhaps mistaking his desire—and her past lovers’—for something ineffable and singular in her. Their collective eyes and eager hands convince her she’ll never be alone.

Then, as she reaches for the back of Raul’s neck, Fallynne picks up something in her periphery, a misshapen brown blur through the trees. She stands quickly and puts her index finger to her lips.

“Shhh,” she says. And then it comes into view: a bear; far enough away to excite, but close enough to nerve. “Bear,” and she points.

They gather their things as quietly as possible, tip-toe across their dam, and jump into the Ford. It’s minutes before they calm down, but the longer they watch the bear from the cab, the slower their insides pulse. They see the bear—a slow moving blonde—meander down the stream and disappear.

On the drive back dusk settles in and Raul puts on a Barbara Streisand CD. He glances over at her, then back to the road. Fallynne thinks of saying something, but doesn’t. She knows he wants her to comment. Dusk is Fallynne’s favorite time of the day. Something calm about the near end of daylight that she feels in her bones. She hears Raul humming along to Streisand, and she wonders if she’ll sleep with him tonight, and if he expects it.

She watches the darkening road, the double yellow lines curving in parallel, the hum of the mud tires, and her mind drifts to her sister walking out into the morning wordless, to her parents—Estes Park, gulping rum and wine— to Yellowstone, the afternoon bear downstream morphing into two bears. She’s fourteen on a chartered bus in Yellowstone, and there’s a traffic jam in the middle of northwestern Wyoming and her Science teacher points at the top of a hill, where two bears feed on a felled bison, and from her bus seat Fallynne sees the bears, then a flannelled, bearded man with a camera who starts up the hill toward the feeding, and already she knows something is wrong, and her Science teacher halts the lecture and yells out the window to the advancing man, Stop, but the man doesn’t stop, he continues up the hill so close to the wild that from her vantage point it seems like he could touch the bears, and he stands there quietly among the awestruck animals and snaps photos for what feels like hours, and then turns around, walks down the hill, and high-fives his friends. This, Fallynne knows—even at fourteen—is exactly the wrong lesson for a bus full of freshmen to learn. And later, on the way back to Colorado, the bus stops unexpectedly in Cheyenne due to a manic snowstorm, and even after thinking about it she lets Marshall Knicks into her hotel room, into her hotel bed, and how thrilled and breathless and confused she was when everything hurt. Then: a week later, swinging back and forth in her snowy neighborhood park, with Shannon listening intently to her story and nodding along because she understood—how Fallynne forgot to say don’t tell anyone.

Pulling into her dark neighborhood, then down her street, Fallynne looks at the Burton home lit up perfectly, so that even night passersby can see the trimmed hedges and clean brick. Fallynne’s home is dark, and as they pull into the driveway she knows she’ll invite him in, but somehow she hears herself say, “Thanks Wolfman. We’ll catch up some other time.”

She smiles.

“Night,” he says.

Alone, Fallynne turns on the kitchen light and sits at her worn bar stool, second from the left. She checks her phone, but there are no messages. She’s tired, and the house is a sauna, so she thinks about getting a tall glass of water, but when she opens the fridge to cull some leftover mushroom pizza she spots the sixer of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, her father’s favorite, so she pulls two bottles out and pops the caps off both. She opens the windows, sits down, and watches half of The Princess Bride. She’s surprised she hasn’t seen Shannon. Perhaps she was wrong about the Burton’s being a sanctuary. Maybe Shannon’s wandering the streets right now. Maybe she’s lonely and scared walking the empty golf course down the road. Fallynne stares at the Burton’s, at the light reflecting off the silver basement window wells. She puts Shannon there. She puts Shannon in her parents’ bedroom betraying her, telling them about the Yellowstone trip and then Fallynne remembers Raul’s suggestion. She’s too tired for a big production, so she simply walks to front door and locks it, and does the same to the side and back doors. She closes the windows. It’s not much, but Shannon never has her keys on her, so Fallynne considers it an appropriate beginning to a larger venture.

Later, Fallynne turns off her phone and kills the lights. She guesses Shannon will wake her up with some knocking, then pounding, maybe some cursing, and then, sooner or later, she’ll leave, and they can get into it tomorrow. It’ll be ugly, and maybe it should. And just before she falls asleep Fallynne thinks of Raul, his orange vest, his simple goodnight, his name, and a ping of \sorrow plays with her because he never asked her about her name, certainly as unique as his. If he had she would have told him about how her name was a purposeful misspelling of Fallyn, an Irish name meaning “in charge.” She’d always liked that: in charge. But he hadn’t asked.

*

Years later, Fallynne will regret none of this. Not locking the doors and windows or the vicious fist fight she’ll win the following morning. She won’t regret leaving home half way through her senior year to live with soft-spoken Aunt Kathy in Aztec, New Mexico, or having a daughter at eighteen—she knew it’d be girl—raising the child on her own, and telling her daughter everything she promised herself she would. In fact, most days, she’ll wish she burned the house down that night, or at least threatened it. For awhile, circumstances out of her control—absent of her—will soak her family in consequence. Her parents will continue to lose themselves in the bottles they’ll move from the kitchen cabinets and scatter about the house—beneath their bed, in the bathroom vanity, the glove compartment, the garage, the outdoor grill. They won’t call or write after Fallynne’s daughter is born. After a year of working checkout at the local Safeway, Shannon will skip the Army and join the Air Force hoping for desk job, but receiving a wrench-turning gig on helicopters, and she’ll carry the gruesome cheek scar Fallynne gouges into her skin during the morning tussle after the lock out. Six-months after the birth of her daughter Fallynne will move out of her Aunt Kathy’s house because her aunt’s new boyfriend likes to push her aunt around the house on paydays. And when Fallynne sends an urgent letter, then dials a desperate midnight call from Shiprock asking for money for her and her infant child, for rent, for clothes, for anything, Shannon will say she has none to give. Fallynne will plead, and Shannon will ask if Fallynne is proud of her choices. Shannon will ask if Fallynne has called their parents. Shannon will ask if Fallynne has gone to a homeless shelter, and when Fallynne says no, Shannon will say, “You’re not desperate enough,” and hang up.

*

Eventually, Fallynne settles in Cortez, Colorado, working as a bank teller at First National Bank. The high desert town plays host to a variety of tourists, mainly folks in the summer months that need a place to stay while exploring the ruins at Mesa Verde National Park or heading down for photos at Four Corners. Mainly, it’s a quiet and self-reliant community filled with ranchers and trucks and people that aren’t planning on moving again. Fallynne rents a narrow twobedroom apartment, and after twelve years of upkeep, of weekly vacuuming and stationary wall photos and watching her daughter grow—the door jamb to her daughter’s room is filled with penciled height dashes and dates—the humble place now feels like her own. Most of her bank customers smile and gossip with her as she takes, and sometimes retrieves, their money. They call her Fall, and at thirty, she still notices and half-appreciates the local men sizing her up as she counts their cash out one bill at a time on the blue counter. She’s tried to date, but prospects are few; still, she has her eye on a stocky policeman named Kevin who skips the outside ATM and nervously lingers while making cash withdrawals from Fallynne’s station.

Her daughter, with a face like Shannon’s, already has two inches on Fallynne as she navigates the seventh grade hallways with unease due to her long, not-quite-under-control frame, but challenges her teachers daily with a sunny curiosity that amazes Fallynne, who hasn’t set or demanded superior performance, but nonetheless witnesses her daughter bring home top grade after top grade. Fallynne rarely sees her daughter study, but sometimes, she’ll return home and find her daughter at the tiny kitchen table, drawing, with Journey softly playing from an old stereo next to Fallynne’s bed. It’s one of the few CDs Fallynne owns, and surprisingly, her daughter has never asked her for music of her own, so Fallynne listens and watches as her favorites become her daughter’s favorites. And not just Journey: they share their favorite food (chicken enchiladas with red sauce), colors (purple and yellow), book (Jacob Have I Loved), the way they sit on the couch (lean back with one leg over the armrest), nervous tick (right earlobe pinch), how they like to be held by men (deep and long, pinning their ears over his heart). Theirs is an emotionally stout bond, the type only single-parent families can comprehend, and while their relationship is about caring and friendship and soccer games and piano lessons Fallynne barely affords, it is also about the occasional biting argument, the evening Fallynne learns that her daughter has cheated on multiple tests, the mustached ninth grader that leaves hickies on Fallynne’s daughter’s neck, and the incredible fragility of one-deep dependency.

Fallynne receives rare updates about her parents and sister from her Aunt Kathy down in Aztec, but makes no effort to contact them. Last she heard her parents were still in Castle Rock and Shannon was stationed on an island off of Japan, but that was some time ago. So it’s with genuine astonishment that Fallynne returns home on a warm April afternoon and finds Shannon sitting in her apartment with her daughter. For a full minute, Fallynne has no words, just swirling images: her older sister, alive, present, with her hair pulled back, odd, puffy cheeks, the menacing J-shaped cheek gash, a blue T-shirt with Coeur d’Alene in white letters, jeans, on her couch, in her apartment, in Cortez, right now. And Fallynne looks over at her daughter who touches her own cheek and gives a no swivel of her head which Fallynne doesn’t know how to interpret.

“She looks like I did,” Shannon says with confident energy. She smiles and her wound curls.

Fallynne is aware of her fingertips digging into her palms. She thinks of saying Get out, but she hears herself say, “Japan. How is Japan?” She wishes her voice was stronger, and she shakes her head at herself.

“I don’t live in Japan, Fallynne. In fact, I’m in the middle of a move.”

“That’s good.”

Shannon stands, and Fallynne’s nerved that Shannon seems comfortable in the apartment, in her space.

“Should we hug?” Shannon asks, but keeps her arms at her sides. “Are you glad I’m here?”

“I don’t know why you’re here.”

“Repentance, Fallynne. There’s a lot to repent for.”

Fallynne still stands by the closed door. She tilts her head and folds her arms.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“How about introducing me to your daughter?”

“How long have you been here? How long have you been in my home?”

Then, to her daughter: “How long has she been here?”

“Aunt Shannon’s been here about twenty minutes.”

“Aunt Shannon?”

“That’s my name, Fallynne.”

“No. Your name is Shannon.”

“I’m here to ask for your forgiveness.”

“Jesus. Give me a minute.”

“Why don’t you sit down?”

“You’re telling me to sit in my own home?”

“I’m not telling, Fallynne.”

“Stop saying my name.”

Fallynne tries to compose herself. She sets her purse down on the wooden consul table and runs her right hand down her left arm. She asks her daughter to give them a minute, and her daughter nods and heads for the door, but before she gets to the threshold Shannon speaks:

“I want her to hear what I have to say.”

Fallynne’s daughter pauses, and Fallynne feels something break open inside her.

To her daughter: “Leave. Now.” She does.

To Shannon, shaking: “My God. I don’t know why you’re here. What do you need?” Pointing: “You don’t come here and talk to me and my daughter like you control anything.” Stepping forward: “You have something to say? Say it right now. You have ten minutes. I’m here. Go. And sit the hell down. Now. And when your time is up you will leave my home.”

“That’s fair.”

“I make the rules.”

And with this Shannon sits, and her confident aura dissolves into the sofa beneath her. She folds her hands in her lap and her chin starts to quiver, and she cries. Fallynne commands herself to stay right there, five feet from the sofa, standing, staring, in charge, but in her sister’s contorted face Fallynne sees profound fear, and it’s too much to take in so she quickly moves to the kitchen for a paper towel. Fallynne inhales deeply, tears off the towel, walks back, and hands Shannon her make-shift Kleenex. While wiping clumsily at her face Shannon pours out apologies in choppy fragments, first for Yellowstone, then the fight, then the phone call, for not visiting, for not acting like an older sister, like an aunt, and she unloads her wreckage with startling acuity, recalls events years past, little squabbles, meaningless slights, things Fallynne has forgotten or misremembered, and Shannon sobs and trembles, then: “I’ve got a guy after me.”

Fallynne can’t wrap her mind around the mash of battling emotion inside her: fury, confused sympathy, vengeance, familial obligation. Still, Fallynne’s anger rattles inside her body when she thinks of her dire call to Shannon from a dirty pay phone in Shiprock, how later that night she had to beg a bartender tending an empty room to let her and her daughter sleep on the sticky, carpeted stage. It disgusts her that Shannon and her daughter were here alone. Fallynne looks around the room, at her modest, sane life, and finds the resolve to say, “Two minutes left.”

Then silence. Then a backfire or a firework or a gunshot in the distance. Shannon’s eyes focus and narrow and her face changes in a way that alarms Fallynne, and causes her internal dialogue to whisper beware. She thinks of the baseball bat she keeps by the refrigerator. A minute has passed, but Fallynne isn’t about to speak the countdown.

“I need help,” Shannon says. “Do you think I’d be here if I didn’t need help?”

“I think it’s time for you to go.” Fallynne strides toward the kitchen.

“Now.”

“I need a thousand dollars or I’m dead.”

“Why?” Fallynne takes another step toward the refrigerator. Her right foot touches linoleum.

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

“Five hundred will do it. You gonna make me beg?”

A rustle on the porch, and the door opens. Fallynne’s daughter asks,

“May I come in?”

“This is your home, honey. Shannon was leaving.”

Shannon rises, shoulders down, but her lifts her chin and her tone changes to mock. “You like this don’t you? You like that I finally need something.”

Fallynne is silent.

“And don’t get the bat, Fallynne. You think you need a bat? You’re pathetic. And I know in your little mind you think we’re even. I didn’t help you, you don’t help me.”

Fallynne crosses the room to Shannon’s side. Fallynne has yet to touch her, but she thinks of placing her hand on Shannon’s back, and then Fallynne notices a little stream of blood coming from Shannon’s right nostril which Shannon sniffs back into her body. Fallynne’s daughter sneaks past them.

“She looks like I did,” Shannon says. “I’m sorry. It’s true.”

“I’m going to give you forty dollars. It’s for a bus ticket. Go anywhere. Don’t come back.”

Fallynne reaches into her purse, removes four crisp ten dollar bills, hands them to Shannon, and opens the door. It’s an unusually warm evening and there’s just enough light to see the new growth on the ash trees across the street.

“I meant what I said,” Shannon says. “I’ve been wrong to you. You think I don’t mean it, but I do. I’m not this person.”

“That’s not true, Shannon. We’re only the people we’ve been. What you want to be means nothing.”

After Fallynne closes the door her daughter rushes to the window to watch her aunt walk away, and she sees Shannon turn right, away from the bus station, and disappear into the dusk.

Fallynne can’t entirely explain why, but a week after Shannon’s intrusion, Fallynne drives to the western edge of town, to the community college, and signs up for classes. From the moment she woke she had made up her mind. She hasn’t thought it all the way through, but she remembers her father telling her that one of the best things a parent can do for their children is to have homework of their own. His theory went that if your kids saw you studying, they would internalize the importance of the act. And Fallynne did see her father and mother reading, almost every night, and yet it isn’t till now that she appreciates the attempt at example. It certainly didn’t work in high school. She also remembers seeing them with alcohol every night, but this wasn’t part of her father’s do as I do mantra.

Kevin the cop stops in the bank and Fallynne tells him about her college venture, and he smiles and offers to take classes with her. She doesn’t decline or accept his offer, which he interprets as a welcoming. He has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Adams State over in Alamosa where he was brought up, but she won’t know this until later.

Fallynne starts with an English night class. On the night of her first class she realizes that she has almost no clue what to expect, and as she walks into the aged classroom with poorly erased blackboards she sees people scattered throughout the room, segmented and nervous. It’s not what she pictured when she thought of the word college: a couple of high schoolers in the front row in khakis (trying to get a jump on college credit), a rancher in a brown, widebrimmed hat (he won’t say four words all semester), three Hispanics spouting lightning quick Spanish and laughing too loud (two will turn out to be brilliant), a few fiftyish women fidgeting with their already bought books and flat gray hair, five scattered, white college-aged kids, Kevin—seated next to her, wearing a bit too much cologne—and her.

Mrs. Kelley, the instructor, is about Fallynne’s age, slightly hunched and heavy, with a cheerful face locked in an almost perpetual smile. Her accent is hard to place, but it’s east of the Mississippi. Immediately, Fallynne likes her, and that first night they introduce themselves, and Mrs. Kelley asks them to name their favorite book, “Even,” she says, “if you haven’t had time to finish it all the way.” From the high schoolers: “Othello,” “Brave New World.” One of them reconsiders, “1984. Well, any dystopia.”

“Thank you sweetie,” says Mrs. Kelley with a raise of her eyebrows to acknowledge their zealousness. The rest of the room names their favorite books, and besides the Bible—highlighted three times—Fallynne doesn’t recognize the titles. Mrs. Kelley calls everyone sweetie, and this will be the one thing that irks Fallynne. Fallynne’s no one’s sweetie, especially not a woman of like age, regardless of education. When it’s Kevin’s turn he says, “Slaughterhouse Five,” and glances over at Fallynne for approval, but Fallynne is already saying her book title before Mrs. Kelley can speak “Sweetie.”

Jacob Have I Loved,” Fallynne says, and Mrs. Kelley smiles.

“Thank you sweetie,” Mrs. Kelley says, but before she can move on— before Fallynne can pinch her right ear to ease the nerves—from the front of the room, barely audible, but there, loud enough for most to hear, a teenager’s voice, “A kid’s book? I read that in 7th grade.” There’s sarcastic laughter among the small group of high schoolers. “6th grade,” a girl says, who looks back at Fallynne.

Quietly, a void builds, the laughter grows, then stops abruptly, the teenagers—decent, but immature local kids—feel the initial pings of awkwardness and everyone slide glances Fallynne for her reaction, but all they see is her open mouth, her pink face, her confidence easily edging toward defeat. Then, Kevin rises quickly, but before he can take a step Mrs. Kelley erupts.

“Get the hell out of my class!” she yells at the ceiling, and with a violent yank that betrays her seconds ago optimism, she seizes an awestruck boy and girl from their front row seats, stands them up, and points to the door.

“Not my worst first class,” Mrs. Kelley says after the students have left. She forces a laugh into the awesome silence. “No knives this time.” She smiles. “If we we’re in Denver, I’d be fired, but this isn’t Denver folks.” Another smile. She settles back down with a few deep breaths. To Fallynne: “Sweetie. I love that book. I miss the ocean, and fish for breakfast.”

Fallynne will never forget that night or the night after, when she lets Kevin kiss her in his patrol car outside her apartment. He’s supposed to be making rounds, but it’s a Tuesday night, so he escorts Fallynne to the Dairy Queen for ice cream and drives her back to her apartment, but instead of leaving, he tells her about his degree and ex-wife in Alamosa and, surprising to Fallynne, admits fault with the ex. He describes his pastor father: honest, harsh, yet proud of him; how he’s never been west of Vegas or east of Kansas City; how he’s hid a random, but severe ringing in his right ear—a line drive to his head while playing third—from his boss. Fallynne tells him about her family, her rush to leave Castle Rock, about meeting her daughter’s father while he worked on a paving project outside Aztec, about him disappearing a week after she told him she was pregnant, how she didn’t really care about that. And as Kevin leans in as they both go silent after retelling their near histories, Fallynne feels the rush of desire and the great hope of companionship as his police radio interrupts with numbers and codes that Kevin says can wait as he leans in again.

Later that night, still high from Kevin and his gentle hands, she hauls the trash out and dumps the plastic bag into the dumpster under their streetlight and the bag tears open, and during Fallynne’s quick glance at the contents she sees small clumps of blood-stained toilet paper among the dirty plastic and crushed cereal boxes. Soon, it will all seem to obvious to Fallynne, but as she walks the forty steps back to her apartment she can’t wrap her mind around the sight: she wonders if her daughter accidently caught herself on something sharp—Fallynne images a broken glass and slit index finger—but as she enters her place and sees her daughter leave the bathroom band-aidless in her postshower bathrobe the answer rushes at Fallynne, and simultaneously, she feels elation and disappointment. She had always imaged a Safeway moment with her daughter running to her, asking for advice and comfort and celebration. And the knowledge enters Fallynne right there in her living room, as she watches her daughter walk across the brown carpet towel drying her hair: this might not be her first period. Without commanding her feet to move, Fallynne finds herself hugging her daughter, somehow intercepting her before she makes it to her bedroom, and Fallynne holds her, but doesn’t speak.

“I like him,” her daughter says. “I’ll say yes if you want to marry him.”

Fallynne isn’t hearing her daughter, and she finds herself being absorbed into her daughter’s arms.

“You won’t lose me,” her daughter says. “Mom?” But Fallynne has her head glued to her taller daughter’s chest. She sees a half-dollar sized bruise just above her collar bone. “Mom?” A pause. “He’s good for us.”

Fallynne doesn’t say tell me everything, she doesn’t ask is this your first? She’ll bring the topic up a month later, and they’ll sit on her daughter’s twin bed and Fallynne will remind her daughter never to be ashamed of her body, to try to be patient with her older boyfriend. Fallynne will learn that her daughter had started five months earlier, and at that moment Fallynne will wonder what she has done wrong, what would cause her daughter not to tell her, but tonight, Fallynne breathes deeply and smells the vanilla body wash on her twelve-yearold and slides a step back and says “Thanks, honey,” and watches her daughter nod, then enter and close the door to her bedroom.

During the day Fallynne works her teller slot and turns her head at the sound of “Fall,” and she pushes through the rough days, and helps the tourists with directions to Four Corners; reminds them that it costs ten dollars to spread eagle into four states, and the Navajos prefer cash. Most nights Fallynne and her daughter sit down at their kitchen table, Fallynne studying for her night classes, her daughter drawing or daydreaming or waiting for her phone to ring. They put on their Journey and hit repeat, and although they concentrate on their separate worlds they always sit right next to each other, each offering an occasional leg bump to keep the other awake. Some nights Kevin comes over even though he has stopped taking classes, and he helps Fallynne with her math or science problems or tries to spark discussion with Fallynne’s daughter who will occasionally engage. While Kevin’s not perfect—he always answers his exwife’s calls, he keeps a messy home and cusses a too vehemently at the television when the Broncos or Avalanche lose—he hits the major checklist items: patient, knows how Fallynne likes to be held and touched, light drinker, good worker, educated, and takes to Fallynne’s daughter like a caring, but not over-authoritive father. Still, even with her daughter’s blessing, Fallynne’s conflicted about marriage. Somehow she can’t imagine—no matter how close Kevin and her get—a permanent addition to her and her daughter’s life. In that way, she’s content with companionship without the ring.

The night of her graduation Fallynne’s aunt drives up from Aztec. Her aunt brings Fallynne a massive white rose corsage and let’s Fallynne know she’s single and happy. When Fallynne’s name is called in the cramped auditorium she feels her legs go numb and she sees Mrs. Kelley tearing up and hears Kevin and her daughter scream out—it’s been more years than she can remember since someone has clapped for her—and as she exits the stage with the paper diploma and sees her daughter, Fallynne remembers her daughter as a newborn with a misshapen head and purple eyelids, and herself at eighteen, ignorant and somehow perfectly content to go at motherhood alone, resigning herself to hard work and modest living. And now, she realizes, she’s done something right. Why it hits her now, at her own graduation, she doesn’t know, but her life decisions up to this point have been validated, and not in a small way. She is raising a healthy, cheering daughter, and she has fancy, black lettering on thick, white paper that says she finished something she never thought she would start.

Before she leaves the auditorium, Fallynne’s aunt hands her a letter. “From your parents,” she says. “Please don’t be mad, but I told them.”

Later that night, she opens the letter. In her father’s handwriting:

Mom and I are very proud of you. You are the example for Emily. Your Aunt Kathy tells us of your success, and how Emily is the smartest and most beautiful girl in the county. We haven’t said it enough, but you are always welcome here. When the time is right for you, please come.

Dad

*

One summer, a couple months after Fallynne gets the word her mother has died, she thinks enough is enough, and she decides to drive east across the state with her sixteen-year-old daughter to visit her father before his kidneys and liver give out for good. It’ll be the first time her father and Fallynne’s daughter will meet.

When Fallynne tells Kevin about the trip he asks to come along—he expects it; after all, they’ve been together four years—but Fallynne tells him no, and after a few days of pouting he comes around, and helps them pack their Honda.

They leave on July 23rd, a Saturday, and an hour out of Cortez, Fallynne abruptly decides to take a back way, and when they arrive in Woodland Park, Fallynne turns the car north on 67 toward Deckers, and soon enough, a small stream accompanies the road and Fallynne remembers, and she tells her daughter about coming up there, and Fallynne recalls the bear, then the dam, and something deep and important moves in her, and she slows down at every turn-off, searching obsessively for her pile of rocks, her ninety-percent dam, but it’s not there, or someone has finished the job without consulting her, and after a number of slowdowns and pull offs and protests from her daughter, Fallynne relents and keeps the car on the pavement, and she asks her bored daughter what two things she’d grab from their hypothetical burning house, and her daughter replies, “Journey and...,” and she thinks for awhile about the second thing she’d save, and during these silent moments Fallynne considers her own answers, but nothing materializes on her list except her daughter, who sits next to Fallynne on a winding, mountain road, tapping at the dash.

JESSE GOOLSBY is the recipient of the Richard Bausch Fiction Prize and the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction. His work has appeared in many journals to include Epoch, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Harpur Palate, and The Greensboro Review others. His story “Derrin of the North” was listed as a distinguished story in the 2010 Best American Short Stories and his story “Safety” will appear in the 2012 Best American Mystery Stories. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.