My brother Terry refused to speak about what happened the night I thought Amy Metcalf disappeared, but I would make him admit we were not the same, that his shame was more deserving than mine. It was his idea to have us over to party that Saturday, and he was the one who drove her home—one sure hand on the wheel, the other hand surer on her bare thigh, later denied.

Melissa, Terry’s fiancée, was out of town visiting a cousin who’d just given birth to twins, so he was looking to get rowdy and invited me and some of my friends from The Hickory Pit to come by after we closed the restaurant. Amy had just started at The Pit, but I’d trained her, and we’d spent the first few days flirting—or so I’d thought—and getting to know each other. Being underage, we were both eager for a safe locale to drink and smoke up. Terry, who’s twenty-three, even offered to buy the liquor if we sprung the cash.

The trip to my brother’s took about twenty minutes and DG blasted Stone Temple Pilots the whole way. He had installed, or rather sat, two full-size house speakers in the back seats of 85 Mustang. An obnoxiously long wire coiled over the center console to connect them to the MP3 player in the dashboard. DG put in STP and screamed along to the first track of Core; I slapped out the drums on the dash. We were both pumped about what the night may hold, and the power chords ripping out of the speakers amplified our giddy mood, hurling us like a red bullet through the tunnel of trees folding over 1793.

We pulled into my brother’s driveway minutes later, and I ran to the door to drop off the list and the money. Shirtless and barefoot, Terry stormed out the front and nearly knocked me off the porch as he sped to DG’s mustang and yanked the keys out of the ignition through the open driver’s side window.

“What the fuck?” DG said.

The size of DG and I put together, my brother was a solid mass of muscle. He lifted weights, and his job as a tree trimmer kept him balanced and agile—like a bull with ballerina legs. I sometimes helped out with his business when the occasional bad storm blew through and he needed an extra pair of hands to man the chipper or handle the saw up in the tree. I’d always been intimated by his size and composure. Older by almost three years, he had a physical confidence that was alien to me, and I both admired and emulated him for it. Not so much because I got cut from every sport he lettered in, but because of the way everyone succumbed to his charms. Even if I told the exact same jokes that Terry told me, miming his delivery exactly, those around me never laughed quite as hard or ever asked to hear it again. When Terry left the room, people still talked about him. He was always there.

“What do you mean, ‘What the fuck?’” Terry said. He was so pissed his chest flexed with every breath. He turned to me. “You need to think, Rusty. Melissa would murder me if got busted for pot because someone called about the music.”

I apologized and held up the money and the list so he could see. He scratched his beard and walked over, putting his arm across my shoulders as he led me back to the house. He looked back at DG and pointed at him through the windshield. “Keep the music off.” The windshield had a long crack in the middle, and when DG lifted his hands from the wheel to say ok, it looked as if head and hands had been split from his body.

“Only two cases and a handle of Beam?” He smiled at the back of the receipt I’d written our order on. “Lightweights.” He smiled and ruffled my hair. “Hey,” Terry said, “is that new girl at the restaurant coming with you?”

“Yeah,” I said, “Amy wants to come.”

“Amy Metcalf,” he said, scratching his beard again, “I remember her from high school. She was a freshman when I was a senior. She was the hottest girl in her class.”

“So,” I said.

He smirked. “She always had an eye for the older guys. Watch out getting too attached.”

“I’m not worried,” I said. In the living room, the heavy pot smoke changed colors with the light of the TV. Two of Terry’s friends were already passed out on the couch, their heads lulling bobber-like on the back cushion. “Besides, your limpdick friends look too smoked out to offer competition.”

“It’s your grave,” he chuckled. “They’re just getting started.”

*

Amy Metcalf was a year ahead of me at North Oldham, and she was gorgeous even then. Her face looked lifted from the cover of a magazine, and she had something equally bright and inscrutable about her personality, as if—like those featured in Vanity Fair, Esquire—her real life transpired on some secret continent of glamour and ease. She’d modeled in New York the summer of her junior year, and her profile pictures were often high-end fashion shoots by name photographers. She had no clue who I was and when the slim chance happened that I bumped into her in the hall, it felt like I’d just walked into a TV interview, a stampede of flashing cameras rushing in from all directions. She was that pretty. It didn’t seem real to be standing beside her.

One way or another, we all fantasized about being with her. I fantasized, though I was hot and cold with a girl named Keira Lawely from the time I was a sophomore before graduating. Keira got into American University and moved to D.C., and I decided to take a year off to figure out what I was going to study at the University of Louisville. The break up was slow and drawn out. We didn’t officially end things until she came back for Christmas: a duffle bag of some of the things she’d left in my room, then she was gone.

I moved out of my parents’ basement that January into a studio apartment in Crestwood and decided that I would get at least one job that didn’t involve Terry. Friends, jobs, girls—the world came so easily to him. He pitied me. No, he never stopped teasing me, but the soft, playful way he adopted in the months after Keira always reminded me of how much harder I had to work at everything just to get by. After getting my own job The Pit, I closed all my social networking accounts and bailed on a roadtrip with DG to a weeklong music festival in Colorado. He came back with a head full of dreads and two new tattoos; I started to say less and less to everyone, preferring to spend my free mornings and afternoons reading on a row of abandoned docks I’d discovered along the river. I always took to the splintered planks alone, and if I imagined swimming to the other shore, it was without audience or spectator—just the snow on the wake and the bare Indiana coast, my limbs shivering with brown streaks of river water as I scaled the banks. I don’t think it was losing Keira that got me down as much as how long I tried for our relationship despite not knowing how serious we really were about each other. I didn’t know what it meant to be sure about anyone. But then Amy Metcalf appeared. She’d just returned to Kentucky after spending two years at the New York Academy of Art. I hadn’t seen her since high school and, when she first walked through the kitchen at The Pit, my job was new, and I was new. The day was a new thing. She filled out the application and was hired by Chris, the day manager, on the spot. A day later, I was training her for prep.

“I still don’t believe you work here,” I said as I lifted the bucket of pudding to the counter. Everyone was in a rush to get to Terry’s party, and Amy and I had to stir in two boxes of wafers before portioning it out for the next day. DG was mopping the lobby and the night manager, Randy, was back in the office counting the till. Amy pulled the tab on the box and ripped open the inner lining.

“What,” she said, “I can’t have a job?” She dumped the entire box into the bin. Fine yellow crumbs covered the cookies and sprinkled into the surrounding pudding. “Everyone needs money.”

I put on a new pair of gloves and began slicing bananas into the bucket. “Yeah, but you’ve been in New York studying art and doing photo-shoots. And now you’re stirring pudding in Kentucky.”

She looked at me with her perfect green eyes and gave me a smile or smirk I couldn’t quiet read. Two years ago, I would’ve just frozen up and started mouthing inanities, and it was nice to discover I could hold a conversation with her.

“New York can become as small as any place else. People kept trying to box me in, telling me I can do this, not that. It got so old. Besides, who needs to go a hundred-thousand dollars in debt getting an art degree?”

I handed her the spatula and told her it’s best to stir in the cookies and bananas by making figure eights. “Jesus,” I said, “a hundred grand?”

“Yeah, my scholarship cut off last year and it’s not like freelance modeling was going to pay the bills, so I came home to save money. It will be nice to get my hands dirty for a change.” She stopped stirring and showed me the pudding-smeared fingers of her gloves. I grabbed the tip of her right hand and pulled off a gob of yellow goo. She laughed.

“So, are you going back?”

“No,” she said, “I’m saving up to go to U of L. Then it’s off to law school.” I couldn’t believe my luck. Not only was I working with her, we would be going to the same school in the fall.

“Art to law, that’s a big change,” I said, trying to contain myself.

“You’ve got to grow up sometime.”

“But they seem so different.”

“Not really. It’s all an act you put on. Art is just as superficial as anything else, believe me. If you want to be a lawyer, do what lawyers do. If you dress and act like an artist, people will start calling you one. You just got to commit to the role.”

I’d never heard anyone speak so confidently about their future and—to hear it from her—I believed the world was at her fingertips. I was at her fingertips. She folded the last little bit of the cookies and fruit into the mix, and we began portioning the pudding into clear three ounce cups. I told her about my possible majors at school and how I read existentialism and poetry, and began to list the authors I’d canonized. I was trying too hard to impress her, and she knew it. She listened to me ramble on like a grade school teacher would the kid in her class who always raised his hand.

We carried the two bins into the walk-in refrigerator, only the shelves were a mess, and I tried to reorder the dairy shelf as quickly as possible so Amy wouldn’t have to strain herself holding her tray. She lowered the plastic container to her hips to relax her arms. “You take all this pretty seriously, don’t you?”

Her question caught me somewhere between a gasp and a sigh. “What?” I thought she meant I was paying too much attention to her.

“I mean I saw how DG left the walk-in last night, and Chris didn’t say anything.”

I shrugged and picked up my tray from the floor and then slid hers on the shelf on top of mine. “Cream and butter goes here, pudding here. The oldest product goes always on top so we don’t waste anything.”

“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” she said. “You don’t have go so hard all the time to get everything exactly right.”

Her comment made me realize what a rush I’d been in since I got back from giving Terry the money for our booze. I was so caught up in trying to impress Amy that I’d forgotten she hadn’t had a break since before I left. I apologized, and she took up my offer to take a smoke out back.

“I’m such a bonehead sometimes.”

“Oh, don’t beat yourself up over it.” She tossed her gloves in the trash. “You just want to get to the party.”

Her reassurance calmed me. Working with Terry, I’d always been mocked and reprimanded—however playfully—for every little slip, and it was nice to know that Amy wouldn’t be so scrutinizing.

When she opened the back door she stopped. “I didn’t know Terry Mills was your big brother,” she said, “you should’ve said something.”

“Why?”

“I was good friends with Melissa’s sister, Janelle. I hung out at their place all the time when they first started dating. It’s hard to believe he’s settled down.”

*

The plan was for Amy to go home early so she could change. DG and I closed up the restaurant and then I went home. DG was going to drive all three of us to my brother’s. Though he smoked pot, DG never drank, so he was always the best option after a party. Still, it wasn’t until I heard the bass from DG’s speakers rattling through the front window of my apartment that I remembered how there was no room in the back seat, and that Amy would have to sit on my lap. My anxiety skyrocketed because I doubted whether or not I’d be able to hide my excitement, and when she came to the door of the Mustang, she shrugged at the two huge speakers and subwoofer as if she’d been told an incredibly corny joke.

“How convenient,” she said.

“I totally forgot to tell you,” I said as I popped open the door, “but you’re going to have to sit with me in the front.”

“I know the drill,” she said, sliding in. I tried to keep her positioned on my knees, but her legs were too long, and after a minute or so of hunching forward, she asked if she could lean back into my chest.

“Sure,” I said and she slid deeper into my lap, leaning her head back upon my right shoulder. She had on these high-waisted jean-shorts and a baby blue button up, the ends of which she’d fashioned into a knot over her belly button. She felt so cool and soft I couldn’t help it. I hadn’t been with a girl in almost four months, and that was a tequila-induce hookup in the back of my car. But here was Amy Metcalf, close enough to see her pulse in her neck.

She didn’t let on that she noticed. She rolled her head to DG and asked if she could skip to the next song. I wanted to apologize, but that would’ve made things even more awkward. She didn’t say a word the rest of the drive, and I couldn’t get a fix on if she was embarrassed or angry, or if the music was too loud. As we pulled into Terry’s neighborhood, I told DG to turn down the volume and asked Amy to scoot forward because my leg had fallen asleep. She grinned back at me, her head just a few inches away from the windshield.

“Comfy now?”

*

We kicked off our arrival at the party with shots of Beam and then took some hits off the pipe on the back porch. Amy spent most first hour making the rounds and catching up with the people she hadn’t seen since she left. I checked in on her from time to time to make sure she had a drink or if she wanted to smoke some more. I always knew where she was and didn’t drink much to keep my game up in case we found ourselves alone.

Terry managed to line up all the girls at the party to do body-shots on his counter. When my turn came to do a shot of Bacardi off Amy’s belly, I balked. I wanted the first time my lips touched her skin to belong to me, not everybody in the room. Besides, I knew she wouldn’t be doing any of this—or so I’d decided—if she wasn’t wasted, and I didn’t want to take advantage. I stood there and said nothing, the shot in her navel golden beneath the fluorescent lights of Terry’s kitchen. After a few seconds she flung her arm in the air like she was signaling a waiter in a movie. “Next!” She shouted and half the shot ran down her torso. Terry dropped down and buried his face into her belly. Amy squirmed with laughter and rubbed the top of his head.

I spent the rest of the time out on the porch smoking cigarettes and seeing everybody off. At around three or so, DG came out and said Amy had disappeared into the back bedroom with Terry. Only Terry’s friends remained: some sprawled out on the couch; others face down in the carpet. Everyone I’d invited had already left. I knocked. There was no answer. I checked for light at the bottom of the door, but the room was dark. I knocked again, but this time I put my ear against the door. The mattress squeaked as a body rose and lumbered forward. Terry opened, blocking my view into the room. Amy was sitting at the corner of the bed, the knot of her blue button-up undone. By the light of the door, I could see the wrinkles in the ends from where the fabric had been tied.

“What’s up?” Terry said. He glanced back at Amy. She didn’t look at either of us, but I could tell her eyes were glassy as she blinked at the carpet. I couldn’t tell if she was just high or if she’d been crying. I gripped the doorway paneling and told Terry to come into the hall.

“What are you doing?” I said. “You’re engaged.”

“It’s not anything.” He put his hand on my shoulder to console me. I shrugged it away. He was drunk, but not stammering. “Hey, come on, Rusty,” he said, “don’t get any ideas. We’re old friends.”

I was about to push the issue, but then Amy came out. “I’m sleepy,” she said, and began to lead me back to the living room. “Time to go.”

*

The second DG turned the key in the ignition the electrical system blew, frying half the fuses. Amy and I had managed to split the passenger seat down the middle, but her knee must have been pressed the volume all the way up in the dash because the speakers popped and the headlights went out against the garage. I went back inside to tell Terry. “I’ll give her a ride home,” he said. He patted his jeans for his keys and went for the door. I stopped him on the front porch. The lights attracted funnels of moths and other bugs. DG and Amy were leaning against the trunk of the Mustang, looking out into the wooded ravine across the road.

“Just let me borrow your truck,” I said.

“No way. I don’t even let Melissa drive my Explorer.”

“Then I’m coming with you.”

“I need someone to watch the place. Everybody’s trashed.”

I pointed to DG. “At least give him a ride too,” I said. He would have to drop DG off last because he lived further away than Amy. If anything was going on between them, it wouldn’t continue with DG in the car.

“You think I need a watchdog?” he said. “I already told you everything is cool.”

“But I invited Amy, and it’s already shitty enough that I’m not seeing her home.”

“Come on, bro,” he said, “she’s not your prom date or anything.”

“But she came with me,” I said almost stomping. Terry quickly slung his hand over my shoulder as if to keep me pinned down. Amy turned our way, and I grew embarrassed at what she might see or overhear. I changed the subject back to DG and lowered my voice. “Besides, DG’s going to need a ride home anyway.”

Terry took a moment to consider things before relenting. “Ok,” he said and then gripped my arm tighter to reassure me he was under control. “If it will make you chill out, then he can come. Now go back inside and make sure those fuckheads don’t bust my shit. I don’t want to have to explain anything to Melissa.”

The garage door opened and Terry backed his Explorer around DG’s Mustang at the foot of the driveway and pulled out onto the street. DG opened the front passenger door and Terry told him to get his ass in the back and invited Amy up front. I waved from the driveway as they drove off, but I couldn’t see if Amy waved back.

*

Chris was on me the next day for being ten minutes late for Sunday prep. I asked what he’d assigned Amy to do, but he said she hadn’t come in yet. It was supposed to be her first shift working prep on her own. Sunday was the day we cooked enough meat for the first half of the week, so I had to fire up the smoker as early as possible if I wanted to leave at close. It took eight-hours to cook the ribs, then I had to chop the pork. I called Amy after I prepped the meat with the rub and injected the chicken and pork with our spicy vinegar sauce. Her phone went straight to voicemail. I left a message hoping her hangover wasn’t too bad, but she needed to come in if she could. Of course I was also eager to talk after what went down at the party.

Noon passed, then one. She still hadn’t called. I began to worry. Chris came out back when I was putting another layer of sauce on the meat.

“Still no word from Amy,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I forgot to tell you because I was busy getting caught up, but she called me and said she was sick.”

“Next time she needs to call me,” Chris said.

I lit up a smoke when he went back inside and wondered whether or not I should try her again. I decided lying for her was pretext enough because she needed to know what I said in case she was on her way. Her phone went straight to voicemail. I left another message detailing the situation, but the message service cut out half way. I texted her, asking if she was all right and telling her she should call me.

*

Later that night, I drove DG back to my brother’s place so he could replace all the blown fuses in his Mustang. Pulling onto 53, I asked him if Amy got sick or anything on the ride home.

“No,” he said, “but we didn’t take her home.”

“What do you mean, ‘You didn’t take her home?’”

“We took her to the quarry,” he said. “She went over to some other cars.”

The quarry was where people—even families—went to swim during the day. They had life guards and scuba classes. But at night, kids came from all across the county to park and drink. Sometimes fights broke out. Once this guy was tripping on acid and he decided to do a back flip off the ledge. He broke his shoulder on the rockface and nearly drowned.

“Why?” I said.

“For another ride I guess.”

“You guess?”

“I fell asleep on the way back. I was already tired from work, and then I took an extra hit when I knew I didn’t have to drive. I stayed awake for the first ten minutes, but nothing was happening, so I put my head against the window. Next thing I knew we were at the quarry.”

“Did you see what car Amy got into?”

He shook his head and his dreads jangled against his ears. “We drove off. I asked Terry where she was going, but he didn’t even stop long enough to let me up front.”

“Did anything happen during the drive?” I said.

“Like I said, they hardly spoke.”

*

Melissa’s car was besides DG’s in the driveway when we pulled up. DG went right to work on his Mustang, disconnecting the speakers before popping the hood. He had a clip flashlight that he could mount to the frame, so he didn’t need me to hold the light as he unscrewed the plastic cover to the fuse box. I decided to go inside. The front door was open behind the screen, and I said who I was as I entered. Terry and Melissa were in the kitchen eating ice cream. Hip to hip, he pressed against her from behind as he scooped out spoonfuls for them both from the carton.

Melissa spotted me over the breakfast bar and smiled. “So how was the party last night?” she asked. Terry winked my way and then kissed Melissa on the cheek. I stopped in the middle of the den and said nothing. “Come on, Terry told me everything. Not that he could cover up the smell from all that smoke. Still, I missed him so much I couldn’t stay mad long.” She turned back to me. “I’m just happy that somebody responsible was around to look after things.”

“It was fun I guess.”

“Fun,” Terry said, “our boy Rusty was tore up from the floor up. You should’ve seen him putting down Beam shots with his little friends.”

His remark pissed me off, since he counted Amy among my little friends. “Weren’t there some body shots involved?” I said.

Terry stared me down as he used to do to pitchers when he played varsity baseball. I even imagined the barrel of an aluminum bat twirling above his head, his hands cocked and ready to let fly. He looked at me so intensely he forgot the gob of strawberry ice cream on his spoon and it plopped down on Melissa’s shirt.

“Watch what you’re doing,” she said and slapped Terry on the shoulder. “I’m going to have to wash this now.” She went to the laundry room down the hall.

“Sorry,” Terry said before giving me a “what the fuck” look.

“Amy didn’t come into work today,” I whispered.

My brother squeezed his fist as if to subdue his anger. “So?”

“So, you dropped her off at the quarry.”

“That’s right.”

“You were supposed to take her home,” I said.

“I took her where she told me. She said a friend was waiting to pick her up.”

“Did you see her get into a car?”

“No. But, to be honest, I was glad to get rid of her. She was being a bitch.”

“Maybe she was mad because of what happened in the bedroom.”

Terry stopped to listen to Melissa down the hall. The washer lid opened and the water started to slush into the cylinder. “Did she say something?”

“She hasn’t answered her phone.” He twisted his head back to the laundry room and listened for approaching footsteps.

“Listen to me,” he said. “Nothing happened last night.” He rested his fists on the counter. “Clear it out of your mind.”

Melissa crossed the hall into the bedroom. The closet doors opened, and I could hear the hangers rattle against the rail as she searched for a shirt.

“Did something happen?”

“No,” he said, “and you shouldn’t give a shit anyway. She told me you crawl up her ass at work. She made fun of you.”

I heard the door to the back bedroom open. Melissa was on her way. He might as well have punched me in the face.

Terry reached over and patted me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, little bro,” he said, “it’s what she said.” I could see Terry’s attention turn to Melissa who had just walked into the room behind me. She stopped briefly and rubbed the back of my neck.

“I’m leaving,” I said and made my way to the front.

At the door, I heard Melissa ask Terry, “What’s wrong with Rusty?”

“Girl trouble,” he said.

*

What Terry said began to sink in as I drove off: Amy Metcalf wasn’t into me, and I was nothing more than a nuisance to her. After all, she hadn’t called back, and she didn’t really talk to me during most of the party. DG and I decided to drive out to the quarry after fixing his car to see who was there, but it was Sunday night, and only a handful of cars remained—mostly couples who’d come to gawk at the stars and cuddle. DG lit up a bowl. We passed it back and forth as we sat on his bumper.

“So, Terry got with her?” DG asked, trying to keep the smoke in his lungs as he spoke.

I thought of what I saw through the crack of the door. Was her mouth red from Terry’s beard? Or was I just seeing it that way now? Did he undo the knot of her shirt? Or was it still undone from the body shots just an hour or so before? What did I really see? What could I trust? Still, the mere thought that Terry might have decided to cheat with a girl he had no doubts I was into began to piss me off something spectacular, though I didn’t feel entitled yet to voice my frustration. Either way, I began to sense I couldn’t trust him as I once did, but I wanted to. Nobody ever really messed with me growing up because I was Terry’s brother, and even when I drifted off and did my own thing after breaking up with Keira he kept calling.

“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe. Probably not.”

“I saw you and Amy at work, and I thought she was into you.”

I took another hit from his pipe and then checked my cell phone, no calls. I didn’t have work the next day, but Amy was scheduled. I wondered if knowing that was any of my business. Suddenly, some guy across the lake yelled over. “Hey, white shirt!” His voiced echoed off the deep quarry walls. The sky was clear. Stars needled the night.

“What?” I yelled back, knowing he meant me.

The guy across the lake ran forward and threw a bottle as far as he could into the purple water. He was so drunk, the force of his throw almost took him down the rockface. “Fuck you!” He shouted and threw up his arms as if he’d just made a field goal.

*

I held out to around noon the next day and called DG at the restaurant. I asked him if things were busy, hoping he’d let slip if Amy had come in or not. He told me they just had a big rush, and I should try him again at four. I thought it was all for naught, but right when he was about to hang up he stopped.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “Amy didn’t show again.”

“Did Chris fire her?”

“No,” he said, “somebody else called in for her. Said she might have to go to the hospital.”

“You mean she was sick?”

“Don’t know.”

“And she didn’t call herself?”

“No.” DG coughed. Then some pans fell in the background. “Jumping Jesus, I’ve got to go.”

“Who called?” I asked again.

“Her brother.”

“Does she even have a brother?”

“Man,” he said.

“I know,” I said, “Get back to work.”

“No,” he said, “this is already weird enough. What else do you need to hear?”

“You’re, right,” I said, “sorry.”

“Damn, man,” he said, “don’t be sorry. I’m your friend. I just have to go.”

“Ok,” I said, but that was it. The phone cut out, and I sat there a second or so more with the receiver still pressed to my ear. I didn’t want to make DG uncomfortable, but everything on Amy’s end seemed entirely off. Laced dope, roofies, masked men in the bushes: the most bizarre scenarios started galloping through my mind. First there was what may or may not have transpired with Terry, but now there were hospitals? I had to find out what the fuck was going on.

I parked two driveways down from Amy’s house and thought about what I would say when I got to the door. The houses in Huntington Hills were a hell of a lot more extravagant than those in my parents’ neighborhood, which made me wonder even more how Amy ended up working at The Pit. I mean my folks’ house wasn’t small by any means, but these were three story palaces with in-ground pools and guest houses. For some reason the disparity led me to ditch the idea of offering any pretext if Amy answered the door and simply tell her the truth behind why I had come: I wanted to know how she was.

Her family’s white country mansion looked even more impressive in the daytime. It seemed at least fifty years older than the rest of the houses that circled its hilltop perch. I brought the brass fist of the knocker down three times and listened for sounds inside. Nothing. I used the knocker again. This time the door flung open.

A guy in a silky red bath robe and slippers stood in the marble foyer, eyeing me like I was a delivery boy who dropped his pizza. He seemed a couple years older than my brother.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Can I speak with Amy?”

“Before I answer that,” he said, “I’d want to know who you are?”

“I’m Rusty Mills. I work with her. She didn’t come in today. I heard she might be in the hospital?” The man didn’t say anything as he wielded a silver cigarette case from the inside pocket of his robe and lit up this short, black cigarette. “Are you her brother?”

“The one and only. But she’s not here.”

“Is she at the hospital?” I said.

He laughed. Smoke barreled out of his nose and mouth. It smelt like oranges and musk—a clove. “I doubt that, though she could’ve flown back to New York a week ago for all I know.”

“You mean you haven’t seen her? You didn’t call in for her?”

“It wasn’t me,” he said, “and it wasn’t our parents because they’re in Australia. She probably got one of her friends to do it. It’s what she does.”

“What do you mean?” I said and pulled out a smoke of my own, hoping that lighting up would draw the conversation out.

“Poor guy,” he said, “this isn’t about work, is it?”

“Listen,” I said, “I heard she was in the hospital, and I’m just trying to find out what’s up.”

He scratched the side of his head. “Ok,” he said, “What do I care?” and stepped onto the covered porch. “She has to get a job for our parents. As long as she produces the occasional paycheck, her trust fund remains open. It’s our father’s idea of keeping us honest. He grew up shoveling shit on a farm out in Henry County.” He took another puff from his clove and flicked it into the driveway. “Step on that, will you, on your way out?”

I nodded and then tried to think of something else to ask to keep him talking, but he interrupted me. “I’ll tell her you stopped by Rusty Mills.” He pointed again to where the clove had tumbled into the yard, its smoke braiding upwards. “And don’t get too worked up. As I said, she never sticks around long.”

Without facing me again, he closed the door, hard. Not slamming it, but not inviting me to return either. Heading back to the car, I stepped over the burning clove.

*

I drove away, disillusioned and irate about the fact that I fell for Amy’s bullshit—that she really wanted to get her hands dirty. Still, I managed to take a breath and, as I pulled out onto Brownsboro Road, I tried to give Amy Metcalf the benefit of the doubt. After all I hadn’t heard anything directly from her mouth, so maybe something was up. Then it came to me that, even by her brother’s account, no one had heard from her since the party. Yeah, there was that guy who called in, but what if it was just another person like me covering for her out of instinct.

I called Terry again, asking right off what he did with her.

“Jesus, Rusty, just forget it. Nothing happened.”

I told him that nobody has heard from her since he dropped her off at the quarry. A chainsaw ripped in the background. “What are you talking about?”

“I even dropped by her place today. Her brother could give a shit less and her parents are out of town. It’s been twenty-four hours.”

“You don’t know all the people she knows.”

“You’re right. That’s why I called Janelle.” Of course I hadn’t, but I wanted to see how Terry would react thinking I called Mellissa’s sister.

“Are you fucking crazy?” I didn’t have to close my eyes to see him squeeze his phone. “Telling Janelle is like telling Mellissa.”

“She didn’t answer. But I left a message checking if she knew where Amy was. I said no one had seen her since you dropped her off.”

“Damn it, Rusty. That was stupid.”

“Something did happen, didn’t it?” I heard him breathe, in and out, in and out.

“Would you get that out of your head? Nothing happened. Besides, there’s no point in getting all worked up about Amy. She’s damaged goods. She flipped out or something up in New York. That’s why she left.”

“What?” I said.

“She didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“She was living with one of her professors and things got weird.”

“You mean they were dating?” I said.

“No, but he wanted her to. She had her own room for pretty cheap, but he kept buying her gifts and writing poems and shit saying how beautiful she was.”

“He made her crack?”

“I think maybe it was more than that. The last time we talked she kept saying I couldn’t understand her. Like I was just an idiot with a chainsaw and a truck, and her ideas about life and beauty were so far beyond me. She got really upset, then she pissed on me when I tried to help. I mean she said some real condescending shit.”

“She told you all this at the party?”

Someone yelled at my brother. The chainsaw ripped out again. “Yes,” he said. “I mean no. I mean we talked about it when I drove her home.” He sounded dodgy, tripped up in a way I’d only heard him around Melissa.

“You called her didn’t you?”

“Come on,” Terry said.

“You called her and you guys talked on the phone.” I was so upset I almost lost track of the fact that phone call at least meant she was alive.

“Jesus,” he said, “this is pointless.”

I let the silence linger on for a second or two longer and then hung up.

*

I decided to drive over to Terry’s place and tell Melissa what was going on. Terry deserved no one’s confidence, yet everyone gave it to him. I was the sensitive one. Amy knew I read and appreciated philosophy and poetry, yet she still shared more with Terry than she would ever share with me. I was on the outside, and so was Melissa. It was time close the circle.

I pulled into their place about an hour after hanging up with Terry. Melissa’s car was there as if it hadn’t moved. I went up to the door and knocked. Melissa came to the door beaming. She surprised me with a big hug and invited me in.

“We finally set the date,” she said. “I knew something was up. He’d been acting different since I got back, but I didn’t expect this.”

“Sorry?” I said.

She plopped down on the couch and studied her engagement ring. “This one is about to have company.” I still didn’t understand. She twisted her head at me. Her face blushed so brightly I had to smile. “You mean Terry didn’t tell you? We’re going to get married next spring. We set the date this morning.” She glanced at her engagement ring once again. “We’d postponed so long I was beginning to wonder. It’s going to be a small affair. Oh, I’m sure he told you?”

I checked my phone for any missed calls and then found my eyes wandering down the hall. The bedroom door was closed, just like the night of the party.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m sure Terry will talk to you soon. There’s nobody he’d rather have as the best man, and if there was, I would kick him right out of the church.” She stood and gave me another smothering hug. “We’re going to be brother and sister now, for real. Aren’t you excited?”

She kissed me on the cheek; I buried my head into her shoulder. “Yes,” I said, stunned. “I’m so happy for you both.”

*

On the ride back to my apartment, a phone call came in from an out of state area code. I pulled off the road into a subdivision and stopped in front of the first house on the right. When I answered, a man asked if I was Rusty Mills.

“Take this number of your list,” I told him, thinking he was a telemarketer.

“You’re the only one on my list,” he said.

“What?”

He asked if I was Rusty Mills again, and I said yes. A dark headed woman inside the house poked her head through the curtains. I pointed at the phone against my ear to demonstrate why I’d stopped.

“You need to leave Amy alone,” the man said. His voice was calm, authoritative. He sounded old. I wondered if he was the professor Terry had mentioned.

“Who is this?”

“Her boyfriend. She doesn’t like what you’re doing, showing up at her house and leaving her a bunch of crazy messages.”

“Is she with you?”

“It doesn’t matter where she is because she doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, “she could have told me all this herself.”

The woman came out front and feigned like she was checking her mail. Again, I pointed at the phone. She narrowed her eyes and stepped down into the flowered walkway.

“That’s the point,” he said, “she shouldn’t have to say anything.”

When I asked the guy who he was he just told me “to back the fuck off” or he was going to come down and give me as much trouble as I was giving her. Then he hung up. The woman took a phone out of her pocket like she was going to call someone, so I threw the Sentra into gear and sped off. I return-called the guy’s number. No answer. I looked up the area code when I got home and the call did come from New York, so I tried again from a phone booth by my apartment. It rang and rang. No one picked up, not even voicemail.

*

I sat on my bed and tried to piece everything together. My apartment only had a small window unit, so I had to keep a couple of fans on to circulate the air. My big oscillating Swanson pivoted back and forth, and I let my thoughts drift with the pendulous whir of the blades. Obviously, Amy knew the man who called me, but I couldn’t determine if he was really speaking for her or just taking it upon himself to intervene. Even if the later was true, whatever I did from that moment on had greater consequences than I originally imagined given that both Amy’s privacy and Melissa’s wedding were at stake. On one hand, I couldn’t lose track of the possibility that I could’ve been completely wrong about everything. On the other, I couldn’t let my desire to have a bigger role in Amy’s life skew whatever small deductions I’d gleaned.

I cleaned a saucepan and fried up some hash browns and eggs for lunch and then tried to nap. Sometime during the previous spring, the kitchen faucet began to leak. The AC usually drowned out the noise, but when the compressor stopped, the drip became so annoying it might as well have been against my forehead. With each plop against the steel basin, images of a drowned Amy Metcalf began to emerge in my imagination. Whiter than bone, her face loomed photo-still as her hair splayed outward, silky and silent in the muted deep.

I tried to take a pair of vice grips to the knobs of the faucet, but the water still came. Then I cleared out everything beneath the sink to work on the copper pipes feeding the faucet, but I came to the quick conclusion that I had no idea what I was doing and just laid there, my head in the cabinet below. The drip resonated louder from underneath, and I thought back to the creepy vision of Amy dredged up from the quarry lake. The image spooked me, not because of its portent, but because I had imagined it so completely knowing it wasn’t true. It finally dawned on me that I’d been thinking all along in terms of movies and books, not in facts, and as I gazed up into the network of pipes, I decided to leave Amy and everything to do with her alone. Terry and Melissa would be married in a few months, and none of this would matter anymore. Perhaps his lapse with Amy was what it took to straighten Terry out once and for all.

*

A couple days later, a massive thunderhead barreled through the county, tearing up a lot of trees in the richer subdivisions that ran along the river. Terry texted me the day after the storms and asked if I wanted to help out with some tree grooming and removal. He already had contracts on three damaged trees, and he wanted to get started the next morning—Friday. I said I could help him out in the morning, and then later that night after my lunch shift. I didn’t mention Amy Metcalf, though she still hadn’t called into work. This was the first time we’d talked since I found out about the marriage.

I showed up at the first house in Prospect with my spikes and harness. Terry was already talking with a customer, a doctor with a silver maple that had been split in two. By seven a.m., we had the tree rigged with rope and flip-lines, and I was up in the tree sawing branches and lowering the severed limbs down by the pulley.

The doctor had two daughters who were home for the summer. They came out to talk after their mother and father left for work. One was a senior at Sacred Heart. The other girl was my age—just getting ready to enter her sophomore year at Center College. Of course they were both all over Terry, flirting with him as he spotted me in the branches. Luke and Jim, Terry’s two full-timers, had gone to rent another chipper, so it was only me up in the tree. I would make a cut and then look down and watch how Terry worked the girls. Since I was about thirty feet up, I couldn’t hear everything, but from what I could tell Terry was on a roll, getting them giggly with his every word. The older girl even felt his beard twice before they both went inside to make us something to drink.

“You want some tea?” Terry smiled like a ten year-old with a pack of Blackcats and a lit fuse. He made the shape of a woman with his hands and then swatted her imaginary butt.

I pushed off the tree and hung there for a second, not saying anything. I’d been up there for an hour and was sweating pretty hard. It wasn’t even nine, but it felt like ninety degrees out. I took off my bandana and wiped my neck.

“It’s your turn to come up here.” Sweat dripped off my lips as I shouted down. “I’ll spot and gather.”

“Not now brother,” he said with a wink, “I’m just getting started. I bet you anything they invite us in for lunch.”

“I want to come down. I’ve done half of this damn thing already.”

“I can’t trust you down here with the women.”

“They’re my age. You’re getting married. Do I have to remind you?”

“And I’m warming these girls up for you to get your mind off Amy, so don’t freak them out by going all OCD.”

The OCD comment sent me off. I was hot and overworked—I still had the smoker at The Pit to look forward to—and Terry was down on the ground doing whatever he pleased, and those girls loved him for it. I genuinely gave a shit about Amy Metcalf, and all I got was pissed off strangers and no calls back. I shouted “watch out” and spiked the chainsaw thirty feet into the ground.

“What the fuck!” Terry yelled. I began to work my way down. By the time I was out of my spurs and saddle, Terry had checked the saw and started it up.

“You’re lucky this thing still works.”

The two girls had come out with a tray of ice tea and watched from the porch. Terry was doing his best to control his voice.

“I’m going to The Pit,” I said and walked to the girls. I took one of the glasses and drained it, the ice knocking cold against me teeth. Some of the tea even spilled down my neck and onto my shirt. I handed them their glass back and nodded, thanking them.

Terry didn’t know what to think. “Are you coming back?” Terry asked as I headed to my car. I kept walking.

*

Friday—I’d forgotten—was payday and when Amy came for her check I was bringing in a whole rack of meat from the smoker. She stood in front of Chris’s office, waiting for him to get off the phone so he could open the safe and get her first and final check. She seemed different, less glamorous somehow than I remembered.

I put the tray of pork down on the counter. I went to wave, but the second I lifted my hand she turned away. I grabbed some sanitary gloves and the cleaver and started working on the meat, chopping it for the sandwiches. I tried to sneak another look across the tiled kitchen floor, but the second my eyes climbed her white v-neck, she whipped out her phone and began texting.

Chris invited her inside his office and closed the door. Not a minute later, Amy was headed out the back to the parking lot. “Sorry things didn’t work out,” Chris said. Amy turned and gave Chris a polite smile. I went back to chopping the meat and listened as her footsteps trailed off out the front. I lasted another few furious seconds with the cleaver before flinging it across the counter. My sanitary gloves were slimy and coated with grease, and I ripped those off too. Chris asked what my problem was, but I just stared into the open doorway that led out back to the smoker and the other end of the parking lot.

“The damn knife’s dull,” I said. After everything this past week, all my care and concern, I wasn’t going to get an explanation? Not even a simple goodbye?

I sped out the back and caught up to Amy Metcalf before she got to her Range Rover. She’d stopped along the way to make another text. “Wait a minute, Amy,” I said.

She collapsed her phone and shoved it back into her pocket. “What?”

“What do you mean? Where have you been? One minute we were calling each other and going to parties, and now you don’t even look at me?”

“I swear,” she said, “you and Terry are exactly the same. You call and then he calls like I have to answer to either of you.”

“So, Terry did call? What did he want?”

“The same thing you want.”

It suddenly felt as if my insides were being crushed in a vice. There was no sky to catch my breath, no gravel walkway to steady my feet. Somehow I managed to speak. “Did he try something with you?”

“Yes, Rusty,” she said, “we fucked. Is that what you want to hear? Now will you leave me alone?”

“I’m not like that.”

“Sure you are.”

“So what are you like then?” I said. “I spent all this time training you, and you’re just a trust-fund brat who doesn’t really need to work anyway.”

“That’s exactly my point. You don’t know anything about me, yet you expect me to answer to you. Terry tried to get with me. I turned him down. No big deal. And—so you know—I was going to work here for at least a few months, maybe longer, but then this whole fucking fiasco happened.”

“You could’ve trusted me,” I said. “I never would’ve done anything you didn’t want.”

“Because I’m so beautiful.” Her eyes were bright, accusing. “I felt you against me on the ride up.”

“I don’t get it,” I said, “I never thought you would be out to judge me.”

“And I’ve dealt with all this before. Guys think that just because they think I’m pretty they can hit on me and try to get with me every second they get me alone. If I give them the slightest bit of attention, then all of the sudden it’s like my problem I have to deal with.”

“I’m not like Terry.”

“Are you kidding? You both treat me like a wishbone and tug. Whoever gets the bigger piece wins. You both only pretend to want to understand me. But at least Terry got the hint. You,” she said, “I had to get one of my friends in New York to call you.”

“So he wasn’t your boyfriend?”

“Don’t you get it? It’s none of your business.”

I shoved my hands back in my jeans and the restaurant and the rest of the world came back. I could hear the traffic on Brownsboro Road. I wanted to flee. I would’ve agreed to anything to get her to stop confronting me.

“I’m sorry I made such a big deal out of everything. I was worried. When I didn’t hear from you, I started thinking the worst.”

“That’s your problem,” she said and opened the door to her Land Rover.

“You’re right,” I said. She sat down and fastened her seatbelt. The driver’s side door was still open. For some reason I almost thanked her. She glared at me and shut the door.

I watched her drive off and then went back inside. My greasy gloves were still where I’d thrown them besides the cleaver. The door to Chris’s office swung open. “We’ve only got an hour to finish prep for dinner,” he said and pointed at the clock on the far wall. The juices from the chopped pork had begun to stain the white cutting board pink and brown.

*

The lunch shift ended, and I still felt miserable. I thought about calling DG, but what I really wanted to do was find a small room and just breathe for an hour. I sat in my car and waited for nothing. Terry texted me twice, saying he was sorry for what he said and that he’d contracted another two tree removals. He needed me ASAP and was willing to put another ten dollars on top of the twenty an hour he was already paying me. I decided to drive out.

He was at another house, this one in Peewee Valley. A red oak, a sixty-footer, had lost one of its heavier branches in the storm. The tree was mostly dead with wilt and probably needed to come down anyway. Terry was forty feet up, getting ready to work his way around to the other side. He waved me over as I stepped out of my Sentra.

“Luke and Jim went to start on another contract in Prospect,” he said. “Spot me.”

Good, I thought. We would have a couple of hours alone before sundown. “I talked to Amy,” I shouted.

Terry stopped in the tree and glanced my way. “Ok.” He continued climbing.

“I said I talked to Amy.”

“And I heard you.”

“Don’t you want to know what she told me?”

He stopped again and looked my way. “Not really,” he said and continued to circle the base, “you should move on, little bro. She’s not worth it.”

“She told me,” I began, but he cut me off.

“Listen,” he said, “I don’t give two shits about what she said. Get over it.”

The tree dwarfed him. It was a straight shot three stories down to the driveway. He seemed so fragile and small at that height, the lines securing him no more than yo-yo strings. One of his spurs ripped right through the bark and he slipped off the branch. Something in me suddenly leapt like a fish on an insect, and in a matter of seconds I’d unlocked all the carabiners to leave him hanging from the pulley. The only thing that kept him from a pair of busted legs was my grip on the rope. He twisted feebly as I began to yank him up and down.

“What are you doing, Rusty?” He shrieked as I let him drop another six or seven feet.

“Now,” I said, “tell me what you did with Amy Metcalf.”

He was too caught off guard to speak, so I yanked Terry up and down again to shake the words out of him. If only Amy could see this, I thought. I even began to picture everything from her eyes as if she were in one of the cars filing home from work: the rope, Terry jerked wildly to steady the gyrating the line, the slight sag of the thick, wilted branch; all of it sculpted precariously, indelibly in place by the low sun. I wanted to feel her foot pivot to the brake as she slowed. I wanted my hand inside hers as she pointed at the theater of my justice. Terry yelled, asking me “what the hell?” and I finally caught myself. Once more, I was only seeing in Amy what I needed to see.

The rope began to feel like nothing in my hands, so I wound the line around my forearm to remember it was there. Terry glanced desperately at something behind me. I turned to the road. A red station wagon approached—the face of the driver hidden inside. I squared back to Terry. With his terrified eyes seized upon my grip, I wondered if Terry still thought that he knew me? Could he tell me how much further I was going to go?

DOMINIC RUSS-COMBS, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, welded industrial models in Durham, North Carolina, before completing the MFA program at Ohio State. His fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Kenyon Review, Carolina Quarterly, and The Greensboro Review. He also has a poem forthcoming in Third Coast. Dominic Russ-Combs is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Tech University, where he’s a Talkington Fellow. He’s currently at work on a novel and a collection of stories.