Jules was living in the Maple Farm house with the Mayock brothers, Neil and Philly, when someone from her old neighborhood was arrested for exposing himself to the deaf girl. Neil and Philly had just gotten in from work, and they were sitting around the scarred table with their boots off, wearing gray wool hunting socks. It was winter, so they’d been plowing the Connecticut General Insurance parking lots all night, and Neil had described how the eyes of displaced deer and coyote, peering from the patches of woods left standing on the insurance company’s grounds, had sparkled in the truck’s headlights. In the middle of the table stood the near-empty bottle of what they’d been drinking to pass the time and keep warm, some of it poured now into their coffees. Outside the snow continued to fall, blow in under the kitchen door, and drift up along the house’s peeling wood siding, covering brambles that Jules knew were lilacs. Mandy was the one who told the deaf girl story, overheard at her parents’ doughnut shop counter, where the local men had coffee and smoked and read the Sunday paper. She was swallowed up in Philly’s red-and-black-checked coat and a long scarf, which she unwound while she talked, her small hands brittle-looking at the end of the sleeves.

    “The guy must be crazy,” Neil said.

    “Taking it out in this weather,” Philly said.

    Neil and Philly looked nothing alike. Mandy liked Philly. Jules pretended to like Neil, so everything would be even. She slept in his room with him, and she followed through the motions of being his girlfriend, which meant letting him do what he wanted with her and acting as if she liked it. Really, he wasn’t her type—lean and lanky and too sweet-natured to be attractive to her. When he stood up his body seemed to unfold. In the pocket of his Woolworth shirt he carried a photo of his dead sister, Sarah Rose. Every so often he would pull it out and look at her, and his face appeared to fog over and become unreadable. Sometimes, he would say, “Let’s ask Sarah Rose,” and his brother would become solemn, and the photo would come out. They’d sit for a moment, as if waiting for the image to respond.

    Sarah Rose had died before either of the boys was born. In the photograph, she was a teenager with long, heavy hair that draped her narrow shoulders. She wore a blue peasant blouse, and stood in front of the abundant lilacs holding one of the homing pigeons from the loft that sat empty now in the back yard. For a thirteen year old, her eyes were dark, and portentous. She held the bird in hands that revealed, to Jules, more emotion than her face—the long fingers of one curved under its breast, the other grasping the tail feathers, cradling the bird’s body in a clasp of complete love. After she died, the brothers said, their parents had let the birds go. But they would not live in the wild, and for a long time they returned, fluttering around the closed loft, pecking for seed. It must have been wearying, Jules supposed, to have released them in an attempt to forget, and to never be allowed to do so. Jules had always been afraid to ask what happened to Sarah Rose. She assumed it was an accident, or cancer, something that could easily strike any of them, and she felt it would be unlucky to bring it up. Mandy agreed. Neither of them breached what Jules called “the sacristy of Sarah Rose.”

    Now the wind came at the windows, and the old maples scraped the roof shingles. Mandy sat down at the table with them. “Bet there wasn’t much to expose,” Philly said, winking at his brother. His hair was dark and thick, like Sarah Rose’s. When he didn’t shave, he looked dangerous, almost ruthless, but when he did his face was soft and pale, like the undersides of Jules’s arms. Then, she could easily see him in khakis and a sport coat, his feet shod in leather shoes, traipsing the threadbare Oriental rugs at her parents’ country club.

    “You guys are drunk,” Mandy said. “And it’s only nine o’clock.”

    Neil leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. He looked at Jules and raised his eyebrows. “So, you know this guy?” he asked her. When Neil spoke to Jules his voice always altered, became soft and tender, almost crooning, she’d said once to Mandy, and Mandy had given her a look as if to say—be happy, already.

    They had all seen the Deaf Child sign in Jules’s neighborhood, stuck in the middle of a long strip of tall hedges as if the child lurked there, just beyond the green border. Jules had met Philly and Neil at John Brown’s restaurant bar in the town center, and they’d driven her home nearly every night last summer before she’d decided to leave for good and no one stopped her. She knew they imagined the deaf girl’s hedge covered with snow, and the girl herself accosted somewhere behind it, the man’s pants shucked down around his knees.

    “His name is Nestor McAdams,” Mandy said.

    “I don’t know any molester named Nestor,” Jules said.

    Philly and Neil’s mouths opened wide with laughter. Neil slapped the tabletop with his hand, and seemed in pain. Philly laughed at his brother laughing. Mandy flattened her small mouth in the semblance of a smile. She hated it when they drank too much and Jules encouraged them.

    “She didn’t hear him coming,” Philly said.

    The deaf child, back when Jules knew her, had been fifteen years old, a babysitter for Jules and her sister, Delores. The deaf girl had hearing aids and could read lips, and her name was Mary Beth. She twirled the jump rope for them, one end tied to the garage door handle. She made popcorn and brought her own cheddar salt. Foolishly, Jules had told the brothers a story about Mary Beth that fueled their imaginations, and regardless of anything Jules said after—that she was flat-chested and had blond frizzy hair held back with two barrettes—Philly and Neil invented their own composites, as if they had seen her one day beyond the tall hedge sunbathing, wearing nothing but a bikini bottom. They brought her up at bonfire parties at the reservoir, at the Sound View Pavilion, at the Candlelight restaurant lounge listening to the bad top-forty band. When Mandy or Jules balked at doing something distasteful or unlawful—sneaking into someone’s backyard on High Hill and swimming naked in their pool, having sex with the brothers in the same room—Philly or Neil would say, “Let’s ask the deaf girl then.” The deaf girl had lived with them all summer, as uncanny a presence as Sarah Rose.

    “That story can’t be right,” Jules said now. “She isn’t a girl anymore.”

    This quieted the brothers. Jules heard only the scrape of their chairs.

    “You always think too much,” Philly said. He gave her a long look, one similar to others she had lately struggled to understand. I love you, the look seemed to say. Jules didn’t dare let herself imagine he meant anything by these glances. She cherished them, believing they were all she would ever have.

    Then Neil protested that she needed to exercise her intelligence to pass the high school equivalency exam, and asked her what she’d finished reading. And Mandy said she’d gotten doughnuts for nothing, because no one was eating them, and went into the kitchen. When the looks had first started happening, Jules worried that Mandy would notice. But Mandy expected other things from Philly—things that Jules believed were far too easy to falsify. She wanted him to let her spend the night with him and have sex, and take her places in his car. For Mandy, that was what love meant. Jules had never believed differently, until the first time Philly gave her that look, and she saw in it the possibility of anguish and fear, and she knew that she and Mandy had been wrong.

    Now Philly looked away, focused on something outside the window. He leaned forward in his chair. “Damn,” he said. “One of the Holsteins is out.”

    Maple Farm was once a prosperous dairy. Philly and Neil’s parents had sold the farm and the adjoining land long ago, but kept the house, where they’d lived and then, later, died. Much of the pasture was sold to developers who built Ridgewood, a community of colonial and split-level houses connected by a labyrinth of streets named after trees: Maple Hill, Chestnut Edge, Butternut, and Hickory Lane where Jules used to live. The rest went to a wealthy man who cultivated corn and kept a small herd of Holsteins. He had intended to produce ice cream and sell it in a small shop, but so far nothing like that had ever occurred. Instead, a few hired men worked the farm, and though the functioning of the business had nothing to do with either of them, the brothers still felt an inherent responsibility toward the place.

    Neil leaned over to peer past Philly. “No, that’s a black trash bag,” he said.

    Jules rose and went to the window. The maple trees that grew by the house also lined the narrow road that led to the barn in back. There, through the blown snow and the bare trunks, she saw a cow. The animal struggled through a drift that swallowed her legs. She thought she saw the panic in her soft, brown eyes. “Oh,” she cried. She moved to the kitchen to grab her coat and boots, but Philly was there first.

    “What do you think you’re going to do?” he asked her. He shrugged on his coat. He grabbed an old halter that hung beside the door.

    She had no idea what to do. She had never been close to the cows, only seen them from the yard at a distance, lumbering and lowing shapes whose hooves made small ruts in the spring earth, whose defecated piles smelled up the house, and brought large flies that eventually perished on strips Philly hung in every room. She followed him out the door anyway, trudging in his footsteps through the snow. The cold was sharp on her face. She’d forgotten her hat, and the wind whipped her hair around. She found gloves in her coat pocket, and she put them on.

    Neil and Mandy had stayed inside, watching from the dining room window. Jules decided that Neil must be the drunker of the two brothers to believe that he couldn’t be of any help. She followed Philly back toward the red barn where the cow stood, making a snorting through her large nostrils. Just beyond the cow the woods began, private land marked off by barbed wire that the new owner had sold, but that the cow knew, and had treaded through each spring and summer on narrow paths to the pond and fresh clover. The cow made a frightened lurch deeper into the bank. Jules stayed a bit behind.        

    “Good girl,” Philly said. “You stay there.” Jules thought he was talking to the cow but he had turned to look at her over his shoulder. His movements had slowed, his voice low. The wind blew through the bare trees, clanking the branches. Then he told her “Shhh,” and she watched his two hands rest on the cow’s black-and-white flank. She could not, for the wind, make out what he said, but she heard the low murmuring of his voice, its soothing cadence. She saw his hands move, flat-palmed across the cow’s back, and she was reminded of Sarah Rose’s hands in the photograph, their grace. He had the halter around the cow’s neck in moments, and tugged gently to lead her out of the drift and onto the path back to the barn. Jules stepped away. She turned and saw one lone shape in the dining room window. She gave it a little wave.

    The sound of the gun’s report seemed, later, as lost in the wind and the snow as Philly’s voice calming the cow. It had an echoing quality, as if from a great distance. Hunters, Jules thought, then wondered how far the ring of trees extended before Ridgewood. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of something scampering back under the barbed wire and into the woods, a long tail flying behind it like a dog. She turned once again toward the house and saw Neil, standing in the road between the maples, drop the family Remington as if he had just taken aim. Behind Jules, Philly lay in the snow—splatters of red like petals strewn around his leg. He was grunting, and breathing through his nose, as the cow had been moments before. She knelt down in the snow beside Philly. She found his hand in the snow and she held it to her face. His eyes were closed and she told him to open them.

    “Open them now,” she said. And he did. There was the look again. She held his hand to her mouth. Philly pulled her down into the snow with him so that their faces touched, then both their mouths, warm and desperate. The snow was in her hair, packed into the sleeves of her coat, melting around the neck of her sweater. Jules heard the cow low. She felt the warmth of Philly’s mouth. And then Neil was there, the snow spraying up around his heaving body as he scrambled through the drift. He didn’t say anything. He took the halter off the cow and tied a tourniquet on Philly’s leg. It was only his leg, after all. While he tied, Neil cried openly, and Jules felt an awkward sorrow for him. Philly swore and remained conscious. The bloody leg steamed from its snowy spot. Mandy called an ambulance. Neil carried Philly into the house and left a trail in the snow, and then another trail across the kitchen linoleum. Mandy handed Philly the bottle from the table with a shaking hand. Once inside the house, Jules felt her heart step up, as if it had been held dormant for the time she’d been outside holding Philly’s hand to her lips. She did not let herself think about what else had happened. It seemed that under the circumstances no one would mention it, and so she would never have to. Neil sat down, shaking and cold.

    “It was a coyote,” he said. He covered his face with his long fingers.

    Philly told him he always had terrible aim. He told him everything would be fine. Jules kept her arms by her sides, her coat still on. She could not believe him.

    Later, after they took Philly to the hospital, Mandy went around with a damp towel, cleaning up the blood, and Jules said she would go out to find the cow. She stood by the bloody spot in the snow, and remembered the way Philly’s mouth felt. She saw that the cow had followed the path to the barn, and stood now by the barn door, where she had found some protection from the wind. The snow had dwindled to flurries that melted on Jules’s face. It was afternoon, but the sky was gray, and it could have been any time of day. Jules supposed the barn was locked, but she tried the latch, and it opened and the cow went in past the others that stood, munching straw or swishing their tails idly. She thought that the animal might know where to go herself, and it was enough that she was inside where there was food and other cow bodies for warmth, and no threat of predators. The barn smelled of hay and feed corn and the cows themselves, a heady scent, almost sweet. Jules found she liked the sound of their movement—the placing of their hooves, their snorting and swishings.

    When she was a child she’d visited Auer Farms, a 4-H farm, on a field trip with school. They had all worn their uniforms, plaid skirts, and white socks, and she remembered her shoes had gotten sucked into some mud on the trail, her socks had been splotched, and she’d been mortified. She had been in first grade, and she’d begun to cry, and the other girls had thought she’d wet her pants or thrown up, and they took her to the teacher, who smelled reassuringly of J’Adore and patted her head and told her, “Not much longer,” as if the trip itself was disdainful. And it had been—smelly and dirty, and the men who worked there, from a distance, seemed tired and overheated, wiping their faces with the backs of their hands.

    Now, she breathed in the smell of the barn, and remembered Philly leading the cow, the gentle way he urged her, the shape of his hand on her flank, and then the blood in the snow, and his mouth, its suffering, the pieces of bone and skin and shredded jeans, all of this—her revulsion and horror, her need and her desire, fastened together, a confused blending. Jules felt it would be wrong for her to stay in the house with the brothers any longer, so she went inside to pack her things. Mandy watched her from the doorway, holding the bloody towel. She didn’t ask what Jules was doing. She stood there, the towel bunched in her hand, fingers bloodstained, face swollen from crying.

    “What if they have to—you know?” she asked Jules.

    Jules had her duffel bag on the bed. It was the bag she’d taken to Adventure Camp two summers ago, when she’d gone to Costa Rica, snorkeled and hiked and done everything the brochure promised with teens of her own age group. She had come back from the trip with no clearer idea of how to fit into her own life, and a liking for Camel cigarettes, and a knowledge of the varieties of expensive pot.

    “What are you talking about?” Jules asked. “If they have to, they have to.”

    Mandy was Jules’s first friend out of high school. Mandy graduated last spring, a year before Jules would have if she’d stayed. She worked now at the doughnut shop and made enough money to buy Philly a leather jacket for Christmas, and Jules an antique gold locket she’d seen at a shop in Simsbury. Mandy said that she was following the no-plan plan, that one day she would simply choose one of the boys in town, get married in the Sacred Heart Church and begin having children, much as her own mother had. Now she stood glaring at Jules.

    “What are you talking about?” she said.

    “Philly’s leg,” Jules said. “Aren’t we both talking about Philly’s leg?”

    She continued to sort through the pine bureau, separating her things from Neil’s and placing them into the duffel bag. Everything smelled of the pine drawer. Jules knew that when she got wherever she was going and unpacked, this smell would remind her of the house, of Neil and Philly, and then, in a heart-wrenching way, of everything else.

    “And you think that’s OK?” Mandy said. Her voice had risen to a high pitch. Jules looked at her and wondered if she was having an emotional breakdown. When her mother had one this was the first marker—a kind of high, whining tone to her voice, a thrashing of her arms and whatever she was holding at the time—frozen peas, the blow dryer, a pair of high-heeled pumps. Soon, the items would resist the thrashing and once freed, sail across the room. Jules glanced at the towel in Mandy’s hand. As Mandy became more agitated, Jules’s movements slowed, like Philly with the cow.

    “I think,” she said, carefully, “that Philly will still be himself, with or without a leg.”

    Mandy’s eyes widened. “Are you kidding me?” she said. The towel flapped at her side. And then her voice rose again. “You’re not leaving?”

    Jules stopped packing. She knew Mandy was crying, and it was just like her mother, the exasperation and disbelief, the begging for Jules not to go, and then Jules staying for a while longer, a feeble attempt to make everything work out peacefully. Part of her knew she had never wanted to leave then, or now. Part of her longed to stay, to be condemned to the torture of imagining Philly and Mandy in bed each night in the room across the hall, to wait in silence for Philly’s glances, to suffer Neil’s attention.

    “Neil will think you blame him,” Mandy said.

    Jules had not thought about this—how it would look to abandon Neil just then.

    “And what about me?” Mandy said.

    Jules glanced up at Mandy’s face—the mascara streaks, the reddened, upturned nose, the sprinkling of freckles. She sighed, and unpacked her bag. She had only put in her summer things, anyway. She didn’t have anywhere else to go.

After a few weeks, Philly came home without his leg. At first he could not climb the stairs, and like his father when he had gotten too old, he settled into the back room. It was set up as a kind of den, with wood-paneled walls, a fold-out sofa, and antique duck decoys on the shelves. There was a television, and a phone extension—a whole little world. The room was at the back of the house, with a view of the old loft, and the sun came up in its windows and shone across the fields. Philly lay there, ashen at first, and then as the days passed, ruddier and stronger, and hobbling around, content with the prospect of his prosthetic limb, and walking just as Neil, or the Malucchi brothers, or Lew Vancour, or any of the other town men did. Jules spent each day in the living room chair by the window. She had a set of the Harvard Classics, green leather books with gilt pages that Neil picked up for her at a tag sale. She didn’t want to tell him that the books probably wouldn’t prepare her for the exam. She accepted them, as she accepted everything from him, because it made him happy. She read Aristotle and Marlowe and Plutarch. She read The Tempest, the same lines over again, distracted now by Philly’s presence. Though they were often in the house alone, he kept his distance, and Jules understood this as his way.

    Mandy worked more often—the night shift when the doughnuts were prepared fresh for the morning. When she came in she smelled of sugar and fryer grease. She slept alone in the upstairs room. She covered her revulsion as best she could. Philly seemed not to care. “It hurts him when I weigh down one side of the mattress,” Mandy said. No one really believed her, a tiny woman who weighed only ninety-five pounds, but everyone pretended to understand. There was a bit of an investigation into the accident, with the police coming out to ask questions as a formality. Later, there were rumors that Neil had shot Philly out of a jealous rage. Rumors, Jules saw, grew out of threads of truth. She saw, too, that the multitude of possible truths made almost every story impossible to believe. She wondered if Neil had told someone what he’d seen between Jules and Philly in the snow that day, if he’d known what he’d seen, if he’d even seen anything. All of this kept her awake at night, staring at the plaster ceiling, avoiding Neil’s arms and legs thrown out in sleep.

    She had begun cleaning the house, exploring the rooms and finding left behind things which she read as clues to something she needed to know, its origins placed in the bloody snow by Philly’s lost leg. Sarah Rose’s old figure skating trophies packed in newspaper. Bits of sequins on a closet floor. Pads of notepaper with lists in old ink: string cranberries, salt front walk, call Maureen. Grocery items she found remarkably personal: Ban roll-on, bobby pins, Corn Flakes. And then the notebook and its contents, observations and lists written in a girl’s rounded script: Luna, Sophia, Mystic, Ariel, and beside Ariel, the penciled word: Lost. There were notes describing markings, noble, white-breasted, and Jules understood that these were Sarah Rose’s birds.

    She lay in bed beside Neil and thought that here his mother gave birth to three children. She imagined the wet sheets wrung in her hands, the blood, the window tossed open and the cooing of pigeons, the blazing maples, their leaves shivering and damp with dew. Or the scent of lilacs, and the bees in the farmhouse eaves, the maple shadows moving on the lawn each evening. Long ago, there would be a lighting of candles, and the lowing of the cows, the crickets rimming the old stone foundation. Jules felt Philly waiting in the room below. She felt his even breathing through the floorboards, heard him turn, and the sofa bed’s springs recoil. Soon, when the snow had melted, the fields would lighten with mayflowers, and Jules saw there was a window of time in which he might come to her, and still, he did not.

    She began sleeping on the couch in the living room. The living room was cold and drafty, and the couch’s cushions were flattened and uncomfortable. Jules awoke each morning before the others, and folded up her blankets and put them away. Still Neil did not protest. His face took on a drawn, pensive expression. By March, everyone was sleeping in a different place in the house, and the snow had melted in the sunny, high fields, and the cows stepped cautiously across the half-frozen ground. Philly was walking with a cane. One day he came out of the den and found Jules folding up her blanket. He raised his eyebrows at her, but said nothing. He had stopped giving her his old glances, as if the kissing in the snow had been all he needed from her. She wanted to ask him why he was up so early, but she did not. She wanted to know why he did not wish to talk to her, or look at her, but she kept quiet. The silence in the house was something no one seemed to want to breach. They simply looked at each other, and moved away in opposite directions—Philly with the tapping of his cane, Jules with her arms full of the blanket.

    She took the blanket to the closet under the stairs. There she had found a Hush Puppies shoebox filled with eyedroppers, and Ace bandages that smelled of camphor, and a small bottle of dried Mercurochrome. She imagined Philly and Neil’s mother dressing their small cuts when they were boys. Across the hall was Philly’s den, the door open, and the sun coming up through the windows onto the rumpled sofa bed. She went into the room to make the bed, believing Philly had gone. She liked being in the place where he’d slept, to smell him on the sheets and the quilt. She pulled everything straight. Out the window, two pigeons perched on the loft’s buckling roof. Sophia, Eileen, she thought. Sarah Rose’s father would drive the birds in crates and release them. Each time, a little further distance. These locations were marked in her book—Granby, Southwick, MA. Her notes recorded the weather—gray, breezy, rain. The times each returned; the birds that didn’t. Jules pictured her waiting under the maples in one of the old porch wicker chairs, winding her long hair around her fingers, watching the summer sky. She turned now and Philly was there, a presence in the doorway. He smelled of the outdoors. He still wore his coat. Jules felt herself redden, as if she’d been caught.

    “The pigeons,” she said.

    Philly leaned over to see out the window. He stood and smiled, amused. “Ghost birds,” he said.

    “But you see them,” Jules insisted.

    She looked out again at the loft. The birds were gone. She did not know why she’d mentioned them at all. This was why no one spoke, she decided. They never said what they wanted. The words were shields to hide behind. She reached for his coat and opened it, pressed herself against him. Philly wrapped his coat and his arms around her. She had her ear to his chest, and heard his breathing. She was conscious of not wanting to unbalance him. She heard him groan, and she remembered the day in the snow, and thought of his pain. When she tried to pull away he whispered not to. His mouth was in her hair, his hands on her breasts, sliding below the bones of her hips. When he kissed her it was different than the time in the snow. It was gentle and probing, like a question. She would answer with her body on the sofa bed, the door softly shut, the sun awash on the quiet duck decoys.

    They were not discovered, and in the days afterward, Philly acted as if nothing had happened. For Jules, it was enough that it had. From this she imagined a moment when Philly would announce his feelings for her. A time, perhaps, when Mandy would begin to come by less, and then, after a while, notice someone else at the doughnut shop counter—a boy with a cap over his eyes, a sly smile, and a car with shiny rims in the parking lot. Though it had been Neil who asked Jules to live in the house with them, and Mandy, initially, who introduced her to the brothers, the prospect of being with Philly made Jules happy, assuaging her guilt. Nothing appeared different, but beneath her silence was a churning she could not contain. She was cheerful, and slept later on the couch, heedless of discovery. She asked about pigeon feed and talked of resurrecting the old loft. There had been pigeons the other day, she said. Mandy gave her a worried look. Neil became grave and reproving.

    “There haven’t been birds for years,” he said.

    Philly stood in the doorway and said nothing.

    And then one Sunday morning Jules caught Philly coming down the stairs from his old room. She felt light-headed, watching him descend. Mandy came down a while later, her expression vacant, her freckles bright. It was as if, sensing what Jules wanted, Mandy had changed her mind. It may have been that it was spring, with everything pushing to the surface—grass blades, tree leaves, crocuses and daffodils whose long slender stems emerged from the loamy soil, tender and exposed. The lilacs budded and opened and bobbed on their branches. That afternoon, the four of them sat around the living room watching a Bonanza marathon. The television picture was unclear, the images separating particles. They had been drinking White Russians that Mandy had mixed up in the kitchen with milk that Jules thought might be sour. It was April, almost Jules’s birthday. She would turn eighteen, something that once seemed pivotal, but now did not. Outside, rain pelted the maples’ new leaves, and it was dim and shadowy in the house.

    “I hate this,” Mandy said. “Little Joe never gets the girl.”

    “He gets a lot of action,” Neil said.

    “But nothing long term,” Mandy insisted.

    “Only Little Joe wants long term,” Philly said.

    Neil groaned. “Jesus, Philly,” he said. “Don’t speak for everyone.”

    Philly had his prosthetic leg off, and Mandy sat beside him, something she usually refused to do if he didn’t wear the limb. “Why Neil,” he said. “Are you thinking long term?”

    Neil shrugged. He looked ridiculous, holding the white drink. Jules felt sick and had stopped drinking hers. She looked beyond the violet glare of the television to the couch, and saw Mandy’s hand snake up the back of Philly’s shirt. Jules had seen her do this before. She would draw a picture on his back with her finger and ask him what he thought it was—a flower, a sun, the letters of her name. After a while, Mandy reached over Philly and grabbed his prosthesis, where it lay beside the couch. She held it with two hands in her lap and stroked it absently, while on the television Hoss balanced his large body on his galloping horse. The grass was trampled and dust sent up. Shots rang out, and Little Joe cried miserably for his dead fiancée.

    Mandy stood up with Philly’s leg in her arms and stepped away from the television glare into the shadow. Jules saw that she was crying, too. Philly looked at her, incredulous. Neil glanced up and seemed to shrink back into the chair cushions.

    “What is wrong with you?” Philly asked.

    “I’m holding your leg,” Mandy said. She held the prosthesis out and gave it a shake. The joints made a sound like a marionette. “Isn’t anyone sad about this?”

    For some reason, the brothers both turned to Jules. At first, she thought they blamed her, but then she saw they simply expected her to quiet Mandy down. Jules stood up from the couch and took the limb from Mandy’s arms. Mandy was unprepared, the leg slipping easily into Jules’s hands. It was soft textured plastic. Lightweight. Jules had held it before, that other morning in the den. She held Philly’s leg now and did not know what to say, overcome with love. The brothers’ eyes shifted from Mandy to Jules. Mandy’s mouth opened a little in surprise. Her cheeks were still wet with tears, but her eyes narrowed.

    “Oh, you were sad all right,” she said. “You were packing to leave that day until I stopped you.” And then Mandy’s face darkened, sensing her betrayal, and she grabbed the leg back. Philly kept his gaze averted, pretending to watch the television. On the farthest couch, Neil bowed his head, his hands in his lap.

    Jules saw her mistake unfurl and bloom, a taste in her mouth like the soured milk. It was true that Philly loved her. He had done so at the moment he believed he might die, and later, when she’d gone to him willingly, her love her own wound. Yet, as long as Neil cared for her, Philly would never admit it. She had left herself open to his advances, his violations, believing they ensured her a place in his life, in this house. But that, too, had been an error. Neither of the brothers thought much about the house, or their mother’s labor in the upstairs bed, or the way their dead family’s hands had worn down the banister. If she had shown them the lists in their mother’s handwriting, the Camay soap packages saved for a sweepstakes, their father’s notes in The Old Farmer’s Almanac, they would have shrugged and shaken their heads. If they noticed the bats flying from the attic on summer nights, they never mentioned them. The pigeons that returned, forced by their terrible yearning for home, pecked at the grass and found nothing.

    Jules sat back down on the couch, quiet, dulled by these thoughts. The story she’d told the brothers about the deaf girl had been made up. Once, when Mary Beth was over babysitting, a boy had stopped by. Mary Beth had let him in, and they’d sat together watching a movie with Jules and Delores. After, Jules and her sister had been sent to bed, but Jules had lain awake for a long time, wondering about the boy and Mary Beth, and what they might be doing together. She’d slipped downstairs to the room with the television, its sound soft, a lull of music and intermittent voices. The room, like this one, was dim, filled with particles of light. She told the brothers that she caught them both without clothes on her mother’s couch—Mary Beth’s body pale against the dark upholstery, her long hair draped down the cushions to the floor, and the boy on top, Mary Beth’s hands clasping his buttocks, smooth and child-like between her bent knees. Really, Jules had found them sitting much the same way as she’d left them. Maybe they’d been holding hands.

    Now, Jules remembered Mary Beth, the times she’d looked at Jules with a sad, loving glance when she’d done something she shouldn’t have—gone through her mother’s clothes to dress up, poured her father’s cologne and shaving cream and talc into Dixie cups to see what it might make. The way she’d smooth Jules’s hair with a gentle hand, a girl assured of what was right. One who would always know when she should have what she wanted. Jules had hidden for a long time behind the loveseat, watching Mary Beth and the boy, but nothing had ever happened, and she’d gone back to bed. As a child, she hadn’t known what she was waiting to see. Later, the few times she’d babysat herself and had boys over, she’d been the one naked on a neighbor’s couch, her own legs spread, fervent for something that would be, time and again, evasive and heartless.

    Jules saw the rain outside on the maple leaves, against the old glass panes. She saw Mandy’s hand slip back under Philly’s shirt, and Philly’s mouth moving, which meant words were coming out. Tree, house, window. But they could be any words, or words that meant nothing. Jules knew she would do one of two things. She would go to Neil and take his hand in hers, lean in to press her mouth to his, requesting forgiveness. Or she would pack her bag and leave. Someone would surely pass her walking with the heavy duffel, see the way her hair hung in lank strands against her wet clothes. A car would stop for her—a Plymouth with finned lights and dark upholstery, and a smell coming out like peppermint and cigarettes. Behind her, up the road in the house, Neil would pull out the photo of Sarah Rose. Jules’s story floated in the room, waiting to be told.

Karen Brown’s first collection of short stories, Pins and Needles, was the recipient of AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and published in 2007 by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her work has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006, and in journals that include The Georgia Review, Epoch, and Tampa Review. A story, “Galatea,” to be included in The Best American Short Stories 2008, was first published in Crazyhorse. She studied creative writing at Cornell University, and the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she is currently working on a novel.

Back to Freight Stories No. 1


Karen Brown

Girl on a Couch