“Both the Substance and the Evidence,” a short story by Elise Burke

Fiction: Elise Burke

Both the Substance and the Evidence

On the Sundays Harlow convinced me go to church, I never really listened to the sermon. But certain phrases stuck out. Maybe the pastor made sense of it all but I was caught up staring at Dot across the congregation as he held his jittery wife’s hand. Her legs bounced around nervously like God was there with raised eyebrows, making her face the commandments her husband had broken. In our pew, Harlow looked the other way, focused on the stained glass window—a scene where Jesus is holding the head of some kneeling woman whose robe had slipped off her shoulder. I always thought it looked like she was getting ready to give him head, which is what church is all about—giving Jesus a good hummer—keeping him pleased with you. I figured that was why Harlow was looking, covering up a boner with his bible, which was always a page or two off whatever the pastor wanted us to follow. But, when I leaned over to ask, he surprised me and said he was mostly admiring the way they could make a robe look so soft and draped in those little rigid boxes of colored glass.

Before the last amen, the pastor said something about faith being both the substance and the evidence. But how could it be both? Seemed like trying to catch the wind. As we shuffled through the church doors, Harlow squinted as a blue panel of stained glass lit up his face. It washed over him to the cheek of the pastor as we walked.

Our car stood out in the church lot. Harlow had spray-painted a black three on the rusty orange doors of his Ford Falcon. I’d married him during a six-month patch when he wanted to race. He chose three as his racing number because our anniversary was March 3 and because we thought I was pregnant. He said there was no luckier number than one that accounted for him, me and the person we were making. Fourteen years later, I was thirty-two and we were still driving a spray-painted car that never saw a racetrack or a baby.

On the way home from church, Harlow stared straight ahead and told me he was quitting his job in the Elkton mines.

“You mean you quit already, don’t you?”

Harlow fumbled with the wheel as he jerked himself out of his suit jacket and shoved it under his ass. He always had to sit on something to see through the windshield. His excuse was that the seat was stuck a little too low but it was really just because of his height. Five foot six. If I wanted to put my head on his chest when we slept in bed together, which we hadn’t lately, my feet would be far past his. Even when I bent my knees.

“Wendy, I wouldn’t have quit if I didn’t have this great idea.”

I wasn’t even mad. I was thankful, almost, that he was giving me a reason to be mad. He hadn’t even worked in the mines a full year. It wasn’t until I threatened him, holding up our telephone bill and waving the pages like they were divorce papers, that he even got the job. Before that, he and his idiot buddy Jimmy, his ‘business partner’, were looking for fossils on the banks of Lake Arrowhead. ‘Dinosaur artifacts’ he called them. When they couldn’t find anything but fish bones and beer cans, he started collecting scrap metal off people’s properties. That made us some money until he got caught and our neighbor rammed the butt of his rifle between Harlow’s eyes.

Through all of high school and into our twenties, Harlow was a tour guide at Luray Caverns. The caverns are all that keeps Luray afloat, and we sure as hell wouldn’t have been sinking quite as deep if he’d just kept that job. We would have had health insurance—we would have had a house with two levels.

“I heard from Jimmy that valley property isn’t even as valuable as what we’ve got. They’ve figured out that we’re on the kind of soil you can grow those fancy black truffles on. They’re getting into it in North Carolina now. It’s all pretty hush-hush because they used to be imported from the Frenchies but we can grow them just as well. On American soil.”

Harlow kept his eyes on the road. He knew better than to look over at me and get shot down before he even picked up a shovel.

Harlow getting lost in some new fruitless project would make it easier for me to slip away. I always told him I was up at the community center, taking whatever class they were offering—wool dying or cross stitching. Not wanting to risk getting caught, I’d walk the half-mile to Dot’s house and call the store to ask what that day’s workshop was. It made me sick that my husband could imagine me smiling at womanly tools, learning how to needle-felt.

Even though I was eager for Harlow’s next failure, I couldn’t let him get away with it.

“We’re not set up for anything to go wrong. You had a job that was paying you.”

He sat quietly for a minute as we rolled over the hills up toward our house. Technically, we lived in Rileyville, right on the lip of Knob Mountain. It was the cheapest property we could get in an already cheap town. We weren’t high up enough to get a view of the Blue Ridges or the basin below. We didn’t have any of that flat and fertile valley land. It was like a little limbo. An in between.

He sniffed. “Well, life is short and working in the mines makes it shorter. That’s not my point, though.” He stopped at an intersection blocked by a funeral procession of beat up Fords and Chevys tugging slowly past. “My point is that this is what makes sense.”

“It doesn’t make sense at all.”

“Well, maybe not to you.” The procession slowed to a stop. Harlow looked down the road, getting all worked up,

“Goddamn it, you think someone would have at least let me through.”

“It’s not like we’re rushing home to anything.”

“Don’t tell me my business like you’re my boss, Wendy.”

“No, I forgot. You don’t have a boss.”

Harlow flicked on a radio station that was playing some Sunday gospel. The song was about going to heaven but between the static and twangy banjo, I couldn’t hear what they said would happen when we get there. Harlow cracked his knuckles. When the cars started rolling again, he stepped on the gas, pulling into the middle of the procession. The car he cut off braked fast. They didn’t even beep. When I looked back, they just stared, dumbstruck, like we were breaching some sort of human right.

“First the caverns, now the mine.”

Harlow’s nostrils flared. I knew this face. All the muscles were constricting and compressing the reasons he was angry. Then he swallowed, like if he could just ingest it now, later he’d excrete it and it would be gone. He didn’t understand that anger doesn’t pass through you. It just binds your gut, like a knot.

We passed Dot and Jenny’s and crept further up. We didn’t have our own street—just a dirt driveway with our house number marked on a bent tin sign. We bought the foreclosed two bedroom shack for thirty-six thousand when we got married. Harlow could only put down twenty percent. I didn’t realize that was the most money he’d ever have at one time, or that we wouldn’t need the second bedroom. We thought about selling after he left his job at the caverns, but we couldn’t afford to fix the roof damage, insulation problems and faulty aluminum wiring. The house was worth barely half of what we owed.

At home, Harlow bolted from the car before the engine was even done rumbling. I stayed back for a minute, filtering through the tools in the glove box, putting the evergreen air freshener up to my nose. I stuffed some receipts and a Church donation envelope into a McDonald’s bag and left it on the seat.

Inside, Harlow was in the kitchen squeezing limes into a mixing bowl. I could never get rid of the house’s lingering odor. Mildew and rotting meat. Once, Harlow had to pry a bleach-soaked rag from me after hours of scrubbing so hard that the chemical morphed my fingernails. But the limes somehow seemed to lift damp, dead smell.

Before I could say how amazing it was, Harlow was out the back door. He took the bowl outside and flicked handfuls of juice all around the quarter acre patch of grass that was our property. Must have been some truffle trade secret. He always ruined the moments that I almost liked him again.

Dot’s house was just down the mountain, a quarter mile before the community center. It only took ten minutes to walk there. Jittery Jenny’s waitressing schedule gave us all day but Dot and I never needed more than a half hour.

Selma, Jenny’s dog, was part pit, part red bone, which gave her the strangest coat. It was all one color but I couldn’t describe the shade better than a silvery red-brown. Like metallic clay. Every time I came up their gravel drive, the dog got so mad that she’d throw herself against screen door and growl until spit ran down through the mesh. Before Dot answered the door, he kicked her head over behind the wire. The squeals the dog let out at Dot’s boot were enough to make you sick. But it never seemed to stop me from opening my legs to him. He’d lock her in the coat closet and no matter how much I’d moan, I could never cover the clang of the metal hangers or her thick nails scratching against the door.

After he locked her up, Dot led me to the bed, pushed up my dress and flipped me over like he always did. I appreciated not having to see his face. When he was a kid, his brother stabbed him on the bridge of his nose with a pencil. He still had a lead fragment lodged there—the reason he was called Dot. It was hard not to stare right at the silver mole. In fact, the day we first got in this mess, he was wearing sunglasses, and I guess even though I’d known him since grade school, I forgot about the dot. It was one of those quiet, too-bright winter days and we were pacing around the banks of Lake Arrowhead. I don’t think either of us had much of a reason to be there outside of not wanting to be where we were supposed to be. It gave us something in common. Reason enough to follow him home.

Dot pushed my face into the sheets, but I tried to keep my eyes open as I dipped up and down. If I let them close, I’d see Harlow sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor in front of me, laughing, dripping wet from a pipe that burst under the sink. Probably the reason for the mildew smell. We let it hiss and spew water all over the kitchen like we were kids playing in a sprinkler. I was eighteen, he was nineteen. We’d just gotten married. When I told Harlow I hadn’t had my period in over two months, he rushed me to the courthouse. He was still in his Luray Caverns work uniform, cap and all. We decided we’d say it came early. With Harlow’s genes, the baby would have been small enough to call premature. But when we went to see the doctor, they said that it was just a small cyst on my ovary—that it would dissipate on its own and my period would resume normally soon.

On our drive home, Harlow cupped the back of my neck and said we would try for one after the cyst was gone. When there’s a will, there’s a wave, he said. Always getting phrases wrong. Back then, he was so convinced we’d be happy. Always getting everything wrong.

I kept my eyes on my fists, full of Dot’s dingy comforter, holding on so tight that my knuckles whitened. But then I made the mistake of looking up. Jenny’s nightstand didn’t have anything on it but a digital alarm clock and a bottle of Tums. Dot’s had two used tissues. I felt sick. They had a television in their room which, if you asked me, was the reason they had still held hands at church. If Harlow and me had had a TV in our room, things would have been different. No matter what was on, we’d have laughed at the same time at least once a night. If it were a game show, maybe we’d have shouted out the same answer, even if it were the wrong one. I’d look over to see him grunt a little laugh and he’d look back at me, smiling. We’d have gotten to see each other in a special, distracted sort of way.

Dot didn’t make a sound when he came, just rubbed himself off on the floral sheets. They were so old that you could barely make out the bulbs of faded pink. I sat on my knees, panting, until he handed me my underwear. Jenny’s clock said it was only two forty-two. I didn’t want to go home to my kitchen sink full of rind and lime pulp.

“Why don’t I stick around for a bit? Maybe you’ll be ready to go again?”

Dot was already zipping up his jeans and tugging at the ruffled sheets. I stood up and when he fluffed the quilt, my house keys flew across the room toward the doorway. The plastic casing of my pocketknife keychain popped off on the hard wood. We both looked at it but neither of us moved. He sat down on the edge of the bed and jerked on his work boots.

“I’ve got to go. I told Mrs. Hindman I’d help put in some new windows for her this afternoon. I don’t know who in their right mind would give that Douglass kid a BB gun after what he did with the fireworks.”

“It’s Sunday.”

He shrugged and laced his boots.

Dot was the go-to for odd jobs. He did handyman work all over Page County, but he never brought his own tools. People joked that he was the smartest businessman around—every garage had a toolbox so why would he waste his profits on his own? The other running gag was that the dot between his eyes was his level.

“Well?” Dot was standing in the doorway, ready to go, with his work coat on and everything.

I was still barefoot. I didn’t blame him for wanting to get rid of me. In grade school, I used to torture him. Apparently, he was some kind of kid genius. He’d stay with our fifth grade math teacher and do equations on the blackboard during lunch and recess. But she got in a fatal car wreck that year so Dot was forced to come outside. He’d do math problems in chalk on the school’s brick siding and a group of us would take turns mocking him. We’d follow up whatever insult we slung his way by yelling, “Dot got taught!” in unison. Once I told him that it was probably being around him every day that made the math teacher, Mrs. Wilson, croak. Everyone loved it so much, chanting, “Dot got taught!” until he disappeared into a thick patch of pine trees behind the schoolyard. When the other kids lost interest and started slinging basketballs at each other, I looked over and saw Dot’s sharp ashoulders reeling. When he came back to the blacktop, his face was all blotchy and red. For the rest of the day, there’d be evidence. Something physical to mock. I wanted to say I was sorry for what I said. That he’d have to go back to class with a swollen face. But I’ve never been good at saying sorry.

I slipped on my shoes and followed Dot down the short hallway to the front door. When Selma heard our footsteps getting closer, she howled and scratched wildly at the wood.

Dot walked onto the porch and held the screen door for me, first looking around to make sure there were no cars coming up or down the mountain.

When the screen door snapped closed behind me, I looked back inside at the coat closet. “Aren’t you going to let her out?”

“She isn’t my dog. Someone ought to teach her not to go crazy when people come to the door.” His boots crunched the gravel as he walked toward his truck.

I didn’t ask why he was teaching a lesson to a dog that wasn’t his. I wasn’t trying to turn him into a man who did the right thing.

Dot started up his truck and pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “I’m gonna be late.”

By the look on his face, I could tell he wanted to see me making my toward my house before he felt comfortable leaving himself.

“What if she shits in the closet?” I yelled to be sure he could hear me over his thundering engine.

He shrugged. “I’ve got my coat.”

When I got home, I found Harlow snoring in his recliner. He’d fallen asleep to some video. The VHS case said,

“Behind French Truffles.” On the screen, chocolates were being molded into little candies by fat women with hairnets. I took the remote out of his hand. His cuticles were red and swollen, probably irritated by the limes. I shook my head, wishing I’d been there the moment he turned on the video and saw chocolate truffles instead of mushrooms.

He slept through the afternoon.

On Sundays when we first got married, Harlow and I never went to church. We would drive to his uncle’s dairy farm in Woodstock to booze and ride his tractors. He usually left one out on his fallow fields. There wasn’t anyone to catch us—almost everyone in the county was squished together in pews. We’d bump along Highway 211 and spend the next few hours bombing hills and chasing calves. We’d take the tractor to the edge of the property to fuck but I only remember us rolling in the thorny brush, laughing and cussing about all the prickles we got.

One morning Harlow took a turn too quickly and flipped the tractor. We were lucky that it threw us off and we didn’t get crushed underneath it. A couple boys I went to high school with died that way. When Harlow got it upright again, he tried to turn the engine. The tractor just quaked and sputtered. We left our beer cans behind hoping Harlow’s uncle would figure us for some bored kids, just fucking around. Which I guess we were, too. After Harlow busted the tractor, his uncle started locking them up in the barn. Since then, we’ve just slept in on Sundays.

I watched a couple parts of whatever movies I could find. The end of Dirty Dancing was on when it got dark. I tried to get Harlow up out of the chair and into bed but when I woke him, his eyes were dark and vacant, like horses’. I even scratched behind his ear to try and rouse him gently. I was surprised by how long his hair was. It had been a while since I’d touched him there. He crossed his arms, readjusted in the chair and said he was fine sleeping where he was.

The next morning, thumps in the kitchen woke me. It’d been cold for April. Though winter had melted, it still took until noon for the sun to pass over the peak and warm the house. I was still wearing the wrinkled dress from the day before, damp with cold sweat. I threw a robe overtop and opened the bedroom door. Harlow and Jimmy were in the kitchen, not ten feet away. They were scooting around five young trees in plastic buckets. The two bulky men were about the same height as the baby trees. The seven of them nearly filled up the whole house. Dirt clods were all over the peach carpet Harlow swore he’d tear up ten years ago. He handed a stack of fifty-dollar bills to Jimmy.

“What is this?” My voice cracked with morning roughness.

Harlow looked over at me and smiled, like I’d be a different person after a night’s sleep. “These are our hazelnut trees. They’ve been treated with fungus and it won’t take long till those mushrooms swell up underground and we can sell them! About a three hundred bucks a pound, baby!” Harlow and Jimmy let out some excited, proud laughs and high-fived between two skinny tree trunks. I couldn’t take it.

“What is the matter with you boys?” My palms were open as if there was an answer they could place inside them. They just stood there silent and confused, like all you had to do is believe in something for it to be true.

“Tell me who out here is in the market for your truffles? You know anyone in this county who gives a fuck about a fancy mushroom?”

“You’re not thinking big enough, Wendy,” Jimmy cut in. “We can head down to Charlottesville or up to Arlington with a bucket and talk to all the good restaurants.” He shifted his weight and leaves as large as lily pads covered his eyes. But I could still see him lick his thumb to count the money Harlow gave him.

I looked back and forth between them, waiting for someone to make sense, but they were just bits of faces between leaves. A beetle crawled out from under some packed dirt and scuttled toward my bare feet.

“One of you just get these infected trees out of my house now.”

Jimmy stuffed the money in his pocket, put two of the buckets under his arms and ducked through the front door.

We stood silently for a minute. “Why would you bring those trees inside just to have to take them back out again?”

Harlow looked past me, not saying a word. There was no reason. When I heard the clang of the shovel in the front yard, I opened my mouth but he put his hand up to stop me.

“I’m doing this, Wendy.”

“How much money did you give him?”

“I earned that money! What do you do? I’m busting my ass trying to make something happen for us all the time! What do you do? Take knitting classes?”

I held my breath and watched him realize that I’d never asked for any money for supplies. That I never came home with any scarves or socks or sweaters. That he’d never once seen knitting needles in my hands. His eyebrows furrowed. All of a sudden I was the one who didn’t make sense.

I grabbed a pair of sandals from the floor and pushed past Harlow, searching the counter tops for my purse. He tried to grab hold of my robe and I jerked away, knocking into one of trees. A leaf brushed against my face and I was surprised by its softness.

“The mines, the caverns. If you want me underground so bad you ought to shoot me and put me there yourself. Go on, get the shovel from Jimmy.” A gust came in through the screen door and licked up my robe. “You wouldn’t hesitate if there’d be some money in me dead.”

As I rushed toward the door, I pushed one of the trees out of the way and a couple leaves broke from the branches.

“I’m sorry to have to say it but after all these years I’ve never once told you to get a job—not one time.” Harlow’s voice had calmed. When he said, “we agreed you’d stay at home when we thought there’d be a reason for you to,” it was practically a whisper.

I stumbled off the cinder block step. Jimmy he quit shoveling and watched me push against the wind toward the Falcon. He yelled not to worry, that it was all going to work out.

I opened the car door and dropped into the driver’s seat. “Easy for you to say, Jimmy, you just took my money.”

He roared something back but I didn’t hear it. I’d already pulled away.

I slowed the car down outside of Dot’s. Jenny was still parked outside so I looped around Main a couple times until gasoline fumes started backing up through the vents. I parked at the grocery store. There was nowhere else to be. I took off my robe and went inside. After a complementary cup of coffee and a couple cheese samples, I stopped in the magazine aisle and took quizzes in Seventeen. They determined that I am a bitch and that of all colors, I am most like a royal blue. Also, that my ideal partner is strong and decisive, even though I am inclined to take the reins. Don’t be afraid to let him do what he thinks is right because you might find that it’s also right for you! I wasn’t sure Harlow ever thought anything was right—he just moved on when something felt wrong. Except from me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have any faith in him—he had too much in us.

Jenny opened Uncle Buck’s on weekdays so I knew Dot would be ready for me by noon. I got stuck behind a school bus picking up kindergartners. I recognized one of the mothers—this girl who graduated with me from Luray High School. She slipped a plum in her daughter’s backpack before she ran up the school bus stairs.

Harlow and I really did try to make one after the cyst dissipated. For years we followed the doctor’s schedule. Harlow even came home when I called to say my temperature was right. We never had the money to figure out if it was him or me. But I have to imagine it was me. The doctor said it could have been the cyst. Some obstruction. I always imagined my womb was the wrong shape or material. Like I was made of glass instead of those squishy liquids capable of growing humans.

When I got to Dot’s, Selma started barking before I made it out of the car. She squealed loud enough that I could hear it over the Falcon’s shuddering engine. When I made it to the door, she was already in the closet.

“Wasn’t expecting you.” Dot was holding a plate of bacon, sausage, and toast with strawberry jelly.

“I wasn’t expecting to come.”

He nodded and led me toward the bedroom.

“I didn’t know you cooked.”

“I don’t.” He sat on the edge of the bed and kicked off his boots. I nodded and touched his thigh, trying to make him forget who made the breakfast he put on the bed stand. I couldn’t remember the last time Harlow ate breakfast or even what he liked.

Dot pushed me over on the side of the bed and pulled my underwear to my knees. He left the TV on. We both got distracted by this movie with crying nuns, their heads bowed over hands clasped in prayer. He kept going but he slowed down a little—he didn’t even notice when I lifted my head from the musty sheets where he usually held it. We were both turned toward the screen, I guess trying to figure out what they were crying about. Eventually the commercial came on and he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. He grabbed a fistful of my hair and jerked my head from side to side like I was on a leash. When I grunted, he mistook it for a moan.

“You like it, don’t you?” He was telling me, not asking. When I didn’t respond, he jerked me harder, “I said, ‘you like it, don’t you?’”

My ears started ringing and all I could imagine was Dot’s boot slamming into the side of Selma’s head—how he pushed her, knock-kneed and yelping, into the closet.

“Yeah, I like it.” I had to say it even though I felt sick. I didn’t want to turn him on though. The sooner he came, the sooner I’d have to go home to the idiots and their hazelnut trees. “Slow down, though.”

I should have known better than to tell him what to do. Last time I said I wanted it deeper, he grabbed my wrists, pushed me into the wall and reminded me of his military rank, and that no one except an E-9 sergeant gives him orders.

This time he pulled out and said he had to walk the dog. I laughed, hoping he’d get the joke. Instead he grimaced and said I should get going. I didn’t argue, just reached for his breakfast and took a bite of bacon, still on all fours with underwear at my knees. Before I could even sit up, Dot opened up the closet door. From the hallway, the confused dog saw me on her master’s bed. She lowered her shoulders and snarled, her eyes on me like I was the one with the steel-toe boot. Or maybe I was worse—I was the one that fucked him.

Selma lunged into the bedroom before Dot could grab her. I covered my face and kicked but my underwear hobbled my legs. She ripped into my calf like she knew how to tear muscle from bone. She was going for the marrow. When I tried to get away, she jerked harder. The bounce of the mattress made it impossible to escape her grip. Every time I’d kick at her with my free leg, my bare foot only grazed her ear or shoulder.

Dot slammed the ceramic plate onto the dog’s head but she kept her jaw clamped. The shards of the plate and bits of breakfast food bounced all over the bed. He pulled Selma’s choke-chain tight and punched the side of her head. His fist was covered in blood but I wasn’t sure if it was his or mine or hers. I tried to wedge my fingers between Selma’s teeth but they were fixed on my leg, even though she was starting to wheeze from Dot’s grip on her collar. She looked me in the eyes and growled. My blood bubbled between her jaws. Her eyes were so dark brown, you could hardly make out where the pupil started. It was incredible, the way she made eye contact while ripping me to shreds. It’s like she knew the hand that beat her had just been in between my legs—not Jenny’s.

When Dot’s hold on her tightened, Selma finally gave in. She shook her head and panted, teeth and fur all red with congealing blood. Dot had a good hold on her as he caught his breath. It was a good time to take my revenge—I was willing to break every bone in my hand on her skull. I tried to sit up to strike but, I was seeing double and her floppy hound ears made her look pretty sweet. Selma pawed at her face and snorted out my blood in a soft spray. She wasn’t mad anymore. She just looked tired. I reached toward the dog. As my hand brushed against her silvery fur, my gentleness surprised me. When Dot saw my finger against her ear, he jerked her away by the collar.

“Get the fuck back, Wendy! Are you crazy?”

Dot dragged Selma out on the porch. Over the dog’s yelps and thuds, I heard a wind chime Dot must have put up for Jenny. The chimes clanged in chaos, like the metal hangers. I felt dizzy. I wasn’t sure if my chewed-up leg was still part of my body. I leaned over the edge of the bed and peered toward the front of the house. Through the mesh of the screen door, the jerking of Dot’s shoulders was blurry as he beat the dog, but the chimes were clear. They dangled from this little stained glass rainbow and before it all went black, the rainbow’s colors combined to a shade so vibrant, I could have sworn it belonged to something alive.

Dot dropped me at the hospital. I couldn’t see him, or anything, but I heard clips of conversation. He said he’d found me walking outside the community center. He pulled over when I was still conscious and I told him I’d been attacked by a dog. Someone should call animal control and look around Rileyville Road, he said. That a dog that vicious should be killed. Then he asked if I was going to lose my leg. I didn’t hear an answer. A nurse stuffed my head into a scratchy surgical cap and told me to count backwards from one hundred. I got to ninety-eight.

The hospital must have called my husband because after I woke up from the surgery, he and Jimmy were by my side. The nurses spared me from having to lie by saying that someone found me outside the community center and rushed me here. That I lost a lot of blood. They said that it might take months before I could walk again but I was lucky that I would. They said I ought to stay the night, to stay hooked up to the IV. But that cost more than the hazelnut trees.

Jimmy drove Harlow and me home. I was so out of it that I didn’t even notice passing Dot’s house. Harlow carried me to bed. The windows were open and I could see all the stupid trees, freshly planted. The house smelled like limes again.

“Do you need anything? Want me to go pick up some food?”

I shook my head and smiled, which was the most tiring thing I’d ever done. My muscles were loose. Everything inside me felt spongy and soggy. All the medicine made me realize how much my body always hurt.

“What I don’t understand is why you need trees if the truffles grow underground.”

Harlow sighed. There was lamplight on him, highlighting all the tired lines and early wrinkles on his face. Even in my state, I wondered how he’d gotten them since it couldn’t have been from hard work.

“The spores grow on roots.” He tucked a few pillows under my leg. “They said you’ve got to keep this elevated.”

“How do you harvest them then? Dig up the tree?”

“With pigs. Or dogs. The roots spread out underground after a while. They can smell them up to five miles away. They go crazy for them—they dig them up.” He sat on the edge of the bed and picked at flayed calluses on his fingers.

“We need a dog then?” I felt embarrassed, the way the words rushed out of my mouth. I couldn’t imagine what would happen to Harlow if we got a dog and it just rolled around in the yard, chewing on grass and chasing butterflies all day. If it didn’t have anything to smell, if the mushrooms never grew, it would kill him.

“You don’t have the best luck with dogs.” He picked up the instruction packet the doctor gave him.

“I might if I had my own.”

Harlow stared at the floor. “Just rest.”

I didn’t realize he had left until I heard the buzz of the television in the other room. The noise warmed up the house. Soon Harlow started to snore. He’d left the bedroom window open and the lights on outside. I watched the young hazelnut trees bend with the wind. It made me dizzy, like I was being hypnotized. When I closed my eyes, I saw Harlow, wet and smiling beside the busted pipe.

I woke in the middle of the night to wheezing. First I thought it was Harlow until I looked outside. Something blurry was digging into the fresh soil by the skinny trees. It had to be Selma. Or maybe all the dogs within five miles could smell the black truffles beginning to bulge underground.

“Harlow,” I patted around the bed for him, “Harlow.”

He stumbled in, eyes wide and bloodshot. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

I pointed outside and laughed. Harlow looked astonished. Then maybe proud. But quickly his eyebrows lowered. He muttered something about animal control and pulled his shotgun from under the bed.

“Don’t! Don’t—there’s nothing even there yet. They haven’t grown!” I tried to lift my arms and pull him away from the window but they went limp and fell back on the bed.

Harlow aimed out the open window. Three shots echoed and jerked his shoulder. I could taste the smoky powder.

“You didn’t get her, did you?” When the smoke settled, I squinted at the trees and didn’t see the dog.

“No.” He clicked the safety on and put it back under the bed. He cracked his knuckles and looked past me at the bed frame. Always failing.

“Where’s the Falcon, Wendy?”

There was no way Dot would have left the car there for Jenny to come home to. Their blood-soaked sheets were probably stuffed in the backseat of the Falcon and drowned at the bottom of Lake Arrowhead by now. But it might have been there earlier, when Jimmy and Harlow were on their way to the hospital. The bright orange doors, the black, spray-painted three—there was no chance for coincidence.

“I don’t know.”

Harlow nodded. A breeze came through the window and my bones felt like icicles, freezing me from the inside out. He’d asked the only question I wouldn’t have to lie to answer. But soon he’d start trying to reassemble pieces that would never fit together.

Harlow sat on the edge of the bed and pinched my purple toes, one by one. The bandages were so tight that I couldn’t feel it.

I closed my eyes and saw Selma escaping the gunshot, limping further up the Knob. A wolf would teach her how to hide from animal control—she was certainly tough enough to seduce one. I pictured her coming back to our yard some day with a litter of pups, all of them excitedly sniffing out the truffles. I’d give all nine of them the names I liked but never got to use—Castle, Walter, Cody, Virginia, Anderson, Jamie, Carson, West and Nicole. I’d invite the pastor over to bless our family. He’d scratch Selma behind the ears and say one of those lines he says, like that faith is both the substance and the evidence. And after what she’d lived through, she’d believe it.

Elise Burke received her MFA from Hollins University’s Jackson Center for Creative Writing. Her short story collection Sorry for Crashing Your Party and Possibly Killing Your Horse is a finalist for the YesYes Books 2018 Pamet River Prize. Her fiction has been accepted by or published in the Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, The Gettysburg Review, Joyland, Heavy Feather Review, and others. She is currently the Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Susquehanna University’s Writers Institute and Fiction Editor at Flock Literary Journal.

Image: geoffdann.co.uk

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