All four of the neighbor kids showed up barefoot on Abigail’s front steps on the last warm day of September. Their feet were muddy up to the ankles, and she could tell that they had been wading in the swamp behind their row of houses. Their mouths were stained with Kool-Aid and their t-shirts were stretched out at the necks so she could see their collar bones. She expected them to ask for money. For a stick of butter. But it wasn’t that. Our momma’s dead, they told her, all four of them. Our momma, over and over, so it became like a little song, like they were baby robins just coming into their feathers there on her front porch, peeping out dead like it was a question and wasn’t. She was still exhausted. Her back ached, but she wouldn’t remember that. She also wouldn’t remember what she said to the 911 operators, how she wondered if Dan would hear on the radio in his cop car and rush over before she called him herself, how she figured out exactly that the kids had no one else that night—grandparents dead and a father in jail for years already.
But she would remember the near-worst part: Walking across the cul-de-sac with the house phone in her hands—walking, she would tell herself later, because it couldn’t be true, what these kids were saying. Not dead. Not in the kitchen. Not on a day like it was, with the sky so blue, and the heat so thick she could feel it on her arms as she walked. Those four kids followed her barefoot across the asphalt. They ignored the chained-up mutt snarling in their front yard as they went by. The oldest ran ahead, opened the screen door and held it as they went through.
Their house smelled like lemon soap. She would remember the lemon soap. How one window in the kitchen was open, but not the way the curtains blew in like lungs expanding. Their mother was stretched out on the floor. She was a big woman wearing jean shorts cut off at the knee so Abigail could see her white calves. On another day, she would have thought they looked like a corpse’s legs and she would have been embarrassed for her, but that didn’t matter because the woman was, in fact, dead. Abigail leaned down next to their mother and couldn’t remember her name for a moment, then remembered, said it three times, rested a hand on the woman’s shoulder, felt that it was cold. Two of the children stayed in the living room. They watched and didn’t watch the commercials that still played on the television. The youngest howled behind Abigail, dead dead dead or maybe momma momma momma, and she grabbed him, wrapped her fingers around his small arms and pushed him into the living room to be with his sisters. She would wonder, years later, if this left a bruise. She would remember hoping in that moment that it did.
“Her hair,” the oldest said. He couldn’t have been more than eleven. He leaned down onto the linoleum beside the dead woman and touched her hair. “She usually has it up. Like in a braid.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. Then, “It’s okay,” but he had already started crying on the floor next to his mother, so the whole house was filled with howling and commercials advertising sponges and those curtains breathing in and out. Abigail was afraid of flipping the woman over. She was afraid the woman’s eyes would be open, and she would see and not see a stranger in her kitchen, that something like blood would spill out of her mouth. Water had boiled nearly down to nothing on the stove. Two packs of generic macaroni were set out on the counter half open. Abigail reached over to turn off the flame.
“Out,” she told them. “Everybody out.” She heard the sirens coming, although that was for something else, it turned out. A fire or a speeding ticket somewhere close by. The ambulance that showed up didn’t even have its lights on. The men stepped out of the ambulance and looked at her like they were checking for blood, for something broken, to see if she was going to pass out in the grass, but she didn’t. She pointed to the house, answered their questions, and then walked the neighbor kids back across the street and into her house so they wouldn’t have to see the rest. But they got on the couch and looked out the window once they came into the living room. Lined right up on the cushions with their backs and dirty feet pointed at her.
She went into the kitchen and found a Popsicle in the back of the freezer, just one, she didn’t remember where it came from. She brought it into the living room and offered it to all of them at once. The youngest took it when the others didn’t.
“It’s green,” he said, but he opened it and started licking the freezer burn, thick white crystals all along the sides. His siblings said nothing, and Abigail went to the kitchen to pour them glasses of water. She walked back to the couch and handed them each a cup already covered in condensation, but they wouldn’t drink, just sat there holding those glasses in their hands.
“Now what’ll happen to us?” It was one of the girls who asked this, the little chubby one, and she didn’t even look up as she asked it. Abigail wanted to tell her that she hoped something would, soon, so they would be off her couch and out of her house, that they would go somewhere where someone would remember to grab their shoes for god’s sake, because their feet must have burned going back and forth over the asphalt.
The night before, Dan had brought home his first black bear in the back of his truck. He had been gone three days. It was night, but warm for September, and the windows were open, so she could hear him honking as he drove up. She came outside with her hair still wet, and he stood there with dirt on his face and smiled at her as he stepped out of the truck. Dan was a big man. Thick, with a head like a bullet, she always thought, but she never told him that. He undid the tailgate, and she could see the bear lying in there like an overflowing garbage bag.
“You should have heard it holler once I had the shot,” he said. “I bet you could have heard it a mile away. I had to follow the thing forever.”
He grabbed it by a leg and yanked it forward, then turned it on its back, and Abigail could see the cut down the center where he had taken out the organs and drained a lot of the blood. She looked at its paws, and he must have noticed her looking because then he took her small hand and pressed her palm up to the bear’s, lined them up. She touched its claws.
“Sharp,” she said, even though they weren’t. Not quite. She had imagined them being too sharp to touch, but these were dull and half hollow.
She watched him get ready to string it up in the garage. He flung a waxy yellow rope up to catch it in the pulley, laughed, missed, hit an old cardboard box of Christmas decorations, and she laughed once too and tried her hand at flinging it up into the rafters, and it was all so easy that she wanted to cry then, somehow, but he grabbed it back, swung it up, and it held. She watched him pierce a spike through the bear’s back ankles and then haul the thing up. It dragged across the back of the cab, its claws scraping across the metal, and the head lolled to the side so its tongue stuck out.
“I’ll leave you to it,” she said, but she didn’t leave, reached out instead to rest her hand on its fur to see what it felt like—oily and coarse.
“You can’t leave. I need you to help pull,” he told her, and she almost said she thought she would faint if she did, but she went in front of him and helped him pull the rope, so it burned between her fingers, and she could smell her husband and the bear, hear him breathing all around her. They pulled it off the truck bed and into the air so it hung in front of them with its claws nearly grazing the floor. He kicked a metal pan under its mouth, and she left him then with the bear slowly turning in the air.
When he came into the kitchen later, his hands were still bloody. He waved them at her and laughed, and then spread a newspaper out, one she had been reading just that morning, and grabbed a cooler from the garage. He set it on the table and looked at her once, and then reached in and brought out the organs. Heart. Kidneys. Lungs shredded from his bullet. Set them onto the newspaper. Pointed and named them like he was teaching her about insides. They were smaller than she thought they would be.
“See?” he asked her. “Isn’t it amazing?” He wrapped his arms around her, but he held his hands away from her back.
He had been baiting the bears for weeks, would go to Coborn’s and pay the employees for a whole garbage bag of donuts they were going to throw out after the bakery closed. He would toss them into the back of his truck and come home with them, tell her about bears eating anything, about last meals and toxic livers, so that she felt like she would be there, almost, just by knowing. She had told him she wanted to come with him. She wanted to shoot and feel what it was like to shoot a gun like he did, but he had told her no, and she stayed home.
She pulled away from him quickly, so his bloody hands grazed the backs of her arms. “I don’t want to see,” she said, turning away from the organs. The hazy lights of the kitchen got in her eyes, and she was tired.
“Well shit,” he said, and he wrapped all those things once pulsing up into the newspaper, crumbled them so she could see they had seeped through the headline. He threw the newspaper into the garbage can under the clock. “How was I supposed to know?” he asked.
“Aren’t you tired of things dying?” she asked. “Doesn’t it bother you at all?” She knew he figured she would start crying, that she would let herself kind of lean down onto the linoleum and cry at his feet, even though she hadn’t yet, even though she wouldn’t. But he would think even the possibility of that would be too much, and she watched him walk to the garage door and step out.
When her husband came home that night, he found them in the backyard. Abigail was trying to start a fire. All four of the neighbor kids were lined up on a log in front of the pit that was still smoking from when Abigail had a fire four nights before, the night Dan left to go on the hunt. She had burned up three chairs from the basement and some old cardboard from the garage, had searched the house for anything else that needed burning. She wanted to make the fire as big as she could. With her husband gone, she had danced around it, felt the beginnings of gnawing already inside of her, inhaled smoke, didn’t bother to brush at the embers that landed in her hair.
But now, she couldn’t get it lit. She kept scratching her nose, and she could feel the ash on her face, wondered if it made her prettier somehow. Each of the children held a stick, although she had told them there would be no marshmallows or hot dogs. They didn’t keep those kinds of things in the house. She kept telling them what she didn’t have even when they didn’t ask—no more popsicles, no marshmallows, no soda, and she recited this as she held the lighter and clumps of newspaper, trying to get a flame going.
“Now what are you getting into?” Dan asked her when he got close. He was still in uniform, and the children stayed where they were sitting. They didn’t look at him, didn’t ask to see his gun, even though he played football in the street with them sometimes. Sent them running home more than once, she remembered, when he played too rough.
She looked at him. Wiped more soot across her face. “We don’t have any movies or games or anything. I thought a fire would be just as good.”
“There’s too much ash,” he said, and he took the lighter from her. “You should know that.” He squatted down so his uniform strained, and he used a board to scoop some of the white ash out of the pit. He took the newspaper from her too, balled it up and put sticks over it, tried to light it.
“Those sticks are wet,” she said. She had sprayed down the whole area around the fire with the hose when she had had her bonfire, afraid the flames would jump out and reach toward their house while she was asleep.
“They’re fine,” he told her, but he couldn’t get the thing started. He couldn’t even keep the lighter going for long before the wind blew it out.
“It’s not working,” one of the girls said. She kicked her feet against the log.
“It’s not working,” another sang.
The third and fourth threw their sticks off into the woods. “Nope.” It was the first time they had spoken in a long time, and Dan turned to them.
“Would you be quiet?” he said, and looked at Abigail. Took a breath. “Who needs a fire? We’ve got a bear in the garage.”
That’s when he led them out of the backyard, Abigail following behind. They walked around the house, and he pulled open the garage door, so the cool air spilled out and shook against the heat, or maybe it was the heat shaking in the cold, she couldn’t remember how it went exactly, but no one else noticed because they saw the bear hanging there still, the cavity in its stomach propped open with something like a stick. The neighbor kids gasped, and she could tell Dan was pleased.
He walked up to the bear and patted it roughly on the side. All four of the kids followed him and put their hands on the side of the bear as well. Stroked it up and down. The bear’s tongue still hung out, and her husband flicked it to make them laugh, and in the dim light of the garage, the laughing boys almost looked like Dan. Almost had the same jaw line. The chubby girl could even have his hair, the way the light made the whole place somehow dimmer, less real. She imagined what they would look like standing there in the garage if someone were to take their photograph. She thought of the other neighbors peering in, or strangers.
Her husband spread the bear’s chest open so they could see it. He stuck his hand in between its ribs and explained exactly how he had pulled all the guts out with his own hands. Then he told them about the shot, how lucky it was, and about the howling of the bear. It smelled like something hot and salty when he first cut it open, and he watched the organs fall into the grass. Makes a guy feel like a man, he told them, and slapped the back of the oldest child, the boy who had touched his dead mother’s hair that morning. And it was too much. Even Abigail knew it was too much. She felt dizzy. The air was heavy with the smell of blood and smoke and something else. It stuck in her hair. She could feel it in her mouth.
“Here,” Dan said. He grabbed pliers from his toolbox, and Abigail watched as he snapped off four of the claws. Like it was nothing. They landed on the cement and Abigail watched as he picked them up, blew on them once. He put a claw in each of their open palms, said, “Souvenirs.”
“It’s spoiled,” she said.
The children looked at her. “It smells,” they said. “Disgusting,” they said.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dan said. He stuck his nose close to the cavity and breathed in. “It smells fine.” His voice rose. “How would you know?” He slapped the bear on the side, sent it spinning again.
Abigail grabbed one of the girls by the shoulders. “I think we should go inside,” she said. “It’s been a long day.”
Dan pushed past her and walked into the house. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He slammed the door, and Abigail and the neighbor kids stood with the bear for a moment in the musty garage. The children stared at it, pushed their small hands into its fur, and Abigail wondered if they thought of it as alive or dead, if their hands pressed into the fur seeking warmth or something else.
She would remember some of this. The pain in her back and all through her, the cramping, like everything twisted up inside of her. Knowing, even as she lifted chairs and cardboard into the fire out back, what was soon coming. She would remember starting the bath and stepping in. How it was too hot, but she let herself sink in anyway. Resting her head on the side of the faucet when she leaned back. How she kicked over her husband’s shampoo on the edge of the sink, how the cap came off somehow, and so much of it spilled in with her. She would remember blood, of course, and all the rest of it flowing out of her and into the water, but at first it’s just soap. It covers up the smell of bonfire and smells so much like her husband, but isn’t. But it’s almost like he’s there with her. She imagines him as a chemical, as particles and atoms and nothing at all because that’s easier than him not knowing what’s happening to her. Than him not wanting to know what’s happening to her—again, and he’s not even home. She lets herself wonder for a minute if he saw this coming and left her so he could chase bears, to bring home something dead for them to look at it in garage, something to distract them from this other death, maybe. For a moment she becomes a thing he has slit open at the belly, imagines herself grunting like an animal in the tub as all of that pours out of her and her husband’s smell is there and not her own.
She would remember standing up then and grabbing the cup she uses to pour water over her hair. Scooping it into the water until it’s full. She would remember looking into it and not wanting to, seeing pieces of herself and pieces of something else suspended. Shredded. She thinks of drinking it for a second just to see, to see something, but then she stands up out of the tub, and the water rushes down her shoulders and stomach and legs, and she runs to the kitchen still wet and naked and shaking and the curtains are open in the house so that maybe the neighbor kids can see. They’re in the cul-de-sac and she can hear their shouting, but she doesn’t care. She sets the cup in the center of the table. Let him come home to it. Let him come home to it and see it. Be surprised. Unsurprised. See it and look at her like she’s something wild.
But then she picks up the cup and walks back to the tub. Drops it and then lowers herself in. She stays there until the water gets cold, leans over to pull the plug out, watches the water lower down her body as it drains until the tub is empty, but she stays there still.
She would tell herself she doesn’t remember this, and so she would, in a way, forget.
The youngest bent over and threw up brown and green real quick once they stepped inside, right onto the carpet, all the while holding the claw. Some of the others kind of laughed, but not Dan.
“You could have made it to the toilet,” her husband told the kid. “It’s only ten steps.”
That made the youngest cry. “I didn’t feel good,” he said, and his crying started up the others, one after the other like sirens.
“It’s time for bed,” Dan said.
She looked at them. They were pale and exhausted. “They need pajamas,” she told him. “They can’t sleep in jeans.”
Dan had taken off his uniform, so he was wearing just a white t-shirt and slacks. “We probably have some old t-shirts or something lying around.”
“We have our own pajamas,” the oldest one said. “We have our own stuff at our house.”
“It’s dark,” Dan told them, but he looked at Abigail. “Whoever comes to get you tomorrow can take you to get your stuff.” He didn’t bother to explain. Just walked to the bedroom and closed the door. He needed absolute silence to sleep, Abigail knew, and she wondered how he had slept on his hunting trip. The birds must have kept him awake, or maybe the cries of coyotes somewhere off behind the trees, and she wondered if he shivered at hearing them, wanted to call out to his friends, or maybe her. Maybe he said her name out loud in his tent, and maybe then it was almost like she had been there with him, but even as she thought that she knew it wasn’t true.
Abigail turned to the neighbor kids. They were sitting on the floor. “Work really tires him out,” she said, but they didn’t answer. “We should get you to bed.” She walked them to the guest room, and she turned away after she told them to take off their clothes. It embarrassed her to think of them stripping off their dirty shirts and pants, realized they must have been smelling swamp on themselves all day. When she turned around, they stood before her in thin cotton underwear, and she handed them each a different t-shirt from a box in the hall closet destined for the Salvation Army. The shirts were big and holey and hung on the children like dresses, and they looked like they didn’t know how to move all hunched up and bony and small in clothes that didn’t smell like them or their house.
“I want to go home,” they said then. All of them, somehow at once. They shook in their big t-shirts. Hard Rock Café. Minnesota Zoo. Cape Cod. Joe Camel.
“You’ll go home in the morning,” she said.
She could tell they were trying to hold it in, but they looked at each other, saw each other standing there in those t-shirts in a house they had never been in before. That was enough. The children cried out then, momma momma momma. She lowered herself onto the floor. Wiped at their cheeks and shushed them. She told them to be quiet, people were trying to sleep, their mother would want them to sleep, but it went on, one long howl, and she couldn’t believe it could go on for as long as it did. She couldn’t believe that she could hate them, then, for not being quiet. That she could hate them for their mother dying and their noise. For being in her house, but she did, felt it rise in her like something hot and fierce.
Dan came into the room. He was only in boxers, the big loose kind all plaid and worn. “What’s going on?” he asked her. “Abigail.”
“I’m trying,” she told him, but it wasn’t enough. She was crying too.
And then the worst part: He grabs them. First the oldest, and he tosses him onto the bed. The girls go next, and it’s like he’s flinging them. They stop yowling as they soar into the bed, their big t-shirts flapping, and Dan is huge as he stands over them, as he lifts them up, and it’s so quiet all of a sudden, or would be, if the youngest would stop, but he howls. And it’s momma momma momma, and he wants to go home, and home is so close. Abigail wants to carry him there, and she wants to go home too listening to him say it before she remembers that she is. I barfed, he says, I want to go home, he says, I barfed, and that’s when Dan lifts the child up by the arm, and without a word her husband hits him, the youngest, right on his underwear that are so worn down and white and not white, and Dan’s hand comes down again and once more, with force, and he flings the child into the bed with the others. Everyone is quiet then. Even the yowling of the boy stops, and it’s so quiet, and Abigail feels like everything, even the air, is empty.
“There,” Dan says, but he’s not even panting they must have been so light, so like nothing. Abigail wonders for a moment if he will fling her too, and how she would react. But he just says it again, there, quieter, and he doesn’t look at them, just walks out of the room, goes across the hall and closes the door. She watches the children for a moment, and they stare at her with big eyes, all of them under the same blanket on the same bed, and she knows they are waiting for something. They must be.
“I’m sorry,” she will remember saying, though later she won’t know if it was that or something else.
But this part. This part she will remember. Because she follows Dan out of the room. She gets into bed with him. Lets him push himself right up against her so she can feel his hot breath on her face. His whole body gives off heat, and she thinks of the bear. The bear howling. How it tripped through the woods on those paws dripping blood, stumbling and crying out like a man. The man next to her kisses her neck, but then he turns over, so that he’s on the other side of the bed. She throws the blankets off even though she’s cold. The house is quiet. She thinks of her body quietly pumping blood in a loop. How quiet all of their bodies are. She wraps her arms around herself. Remembers the heat of the tub, that water draining. Feels something like relief.
In the morning, the kids left without looking at her, and she wouldn’t look at them either, then, but years passed, and from her living room Abigail would watch the neighbor kids. An uncle came to live in the house where their mother died, volunteered to raise them, Abigail guessed, although she didn’t ever learn the circumstances exactly. The children got older. The boys grew their hair out, sat in their driveway on the hoods of hot cars, drank cheap beer. Brought home little blondes. She would watch them leave and return, leave and return. She would watch the youngest girl become pregnant as a teenager, sixteen, maybe. She kept the child. Abigail would watch the girl bring the baby outside and let it walk across the grass in the sun. She would name it something like Daisy or Dot.
But what mattered to her was what could have happened. She could have brought them into her house after the ambulance left, lined them up along the edge of the tub. They would not have seen their mother. She wouldn’t have let them. But she would have washed their feet, bent down and rubbed them with a towel until their toes were dry of swamp. Her hair would have fallen over her shoulder, and she would have hummed, and this would have made them tired and her tired, the heat and the warm water and humming
Now, part of her wants to call them up and tell them about her husband. She wants to tell them about her husband dying. How he dropped dead today in the heat at work, and doesn’t that just figure? After they left that night, she watched him pull down the bear, let it drop onto the cement. She wants to tell them how it sounded, that hollow thud, and how he knew the meat was spoiled. He sent it away. She didn’t know where. She wants to tell them about the morning after they left, about finding the claws in their bed. How she picked them up and boiled them, boiled off the fur until they were nothing but bone. How she thought to lacquer them, maybe leave them in their mailbox or bury them, and how she ended up throwing them into the trash in her kitchen.