The previous April, a stray cat had come from twelve miles away. Shelley’d seen the animal in town before and it hadn’t looked too friendly. She’d fed it and it had eaten ravenously while flies hummed and flicked along its mottled skin, its bulged ribs. But now, as she squatted to stroke it, it looked unrecognizably fat.
“So,” she said, cutting the last slivers of meat from the leftover chicken and dropping them into a bowl on her doorstep, “you wanna take the bus down, um, after school—the city bus —or you can wait and I’ll come get you after I get your sister.”
Marcus pulled a baggy Insane Clown Posse t-shirt over his boney chest. “I’m so sick of mailboxes,” he said. “I don’t even know why we need them. You know?”
Shelley looked at him, his blonde hair just beginning to thin around a prominent widow’s peak, slate-blue eyes, a narrow, long nose and thin lips.
“Everyone needs a mailbox.”
“Not everyone,” Marcus answered.
“Like who then?”
He shrugged. “I’ll ask someone.”
“Marcus, you don’t have to ask anybody, I’m telling you. Just buy the mailbox after school.” She paused to dig for her wallet in her purse. She checked the wallet and saw she only had a hundred. She knew better than to trust the boy with the money but thought it a good opportunity to assimilate him into a position of responsibility, so she handed him the bill. “Be sure to get the best one they—get a blue one, okay—but bring my change back.”
The boy plunked the bill into his pocket and stared at the pregnant cat, appraising it with narrowed eyes as if calculating what bits of her would sate a preternatural hunger. He walked into the woods and jerked off into the briars before the school bus pulled up.
When Shelley thought of Marcus it was with a mixture of distaste and fear. She accepted that he was her nephew, and therefore the vessel of so much potential, yet he was such a little dick, the kind of kid she had known when she had been his age. It hadn’t been Shelley’s intention to take custody of him and his sister, Clover, from her brother, yet that was how it played because their capricious father’s bad habits—from his prodigious Oxy abuse to his “film studio” to his gambling addiction to the possibility she would find him in the morning on the street wearing headphones attached to an iPod, his nostrils stained blue, while the children starved— only served to mollify her. Shelley knew it was bad, but that was West Virginia.
The catalyzing incident had come when she spotted ten-year-old Marcus in the pool, alone. She could see that he had a tattoo on his forearm: a backward swastika and a Gila monster. She recalled the reasons her brother had given her, reasons why she shouldn’t take custody, as she drove him to the CPS office in Summersville, harping all the way on duty, responsibility, the necessity of signing the papers so the children could break the cycle of white trash. When the paperwork went through, Shelley had expected the kids to be well-behaved so she could raise them as she’d raised her own son. The truth was precisely the opposite: she was horrified to find that she had adopted aggressive delinquents. She was unprepared for Marcus’s abuse, his assertion of self, and for the violence that frightened her. So common was Marcus’s behavior that his disinhabiting Shelley’s trailer following an argument with her elicited neither comment nor much notice in the trailer park. And Clover—with her history of sexual abuse—was already a handful. Once, Shelley had gone through the girl’s room and found a treasure trove of dom-sub gear: crotchless panties, plugs, and a vinyl bodysuit.
Shelley was not a conservative woman. She was joyously progressive and beloved for her easy-going way. The details of her life seemed pedestrian. She had to scrap her way from the bottom, by making a go of a ridiculous daycare job, by attending law classes at the community college, and by being married with child a year later. Yes, taking care of her siblings when she was young had made her into a model mother—present (almost omnipresent), patient and dependable. She was noble, even often, over her sisters’ objections, taking up the responsibility of her brothers’ problems. But she was also vulnerable in nature and, along the way, learned again what she already knew: she was a pushover. Throughout the nineteen-nineties, she dealt with her husband, who had turned abusive, making ends meet, raising her son. She remembered how her secret girlhood dream had been to marry a rich, handsome man, one who could free her of the burden and responsibility of those in her family who would take advantage of her. So it was a surprise and relief for her when, after her divorce, she caught the eye of John Billings, a smart, handsome man who had good kids and property in North Carolina.
That afternoon, she went to John’s house before she was to pick up Clover to meet with Marcus at Wal-Mart. After some kissing, she reacquainted herself with how to put a condom on a man. Instead of unrolling it, she was trying to pull it on like a sock, which made it awkward. But John didn’t say anything and eventually he climbed on top of her. It had been so long that when he was done, Shelley pushed him out of herself, stood up, and got dressed, as if waking from a strange, twisted and not entirely unpleasant dream. They climbed back into bed and turned out the light for a while. They had become close, closer than she had ever been to her ex-husband, and, for the first time in her life, she had someone to talk to, someone who understood everything. They talked about setting up a house together near Asheville. John had rightly condemned Marcus and Clover as bad seeds and Devil children. Now, unspoken in their conversation, Shelley could sense his belief that she was guilty—not of being pushed around by her brother’s kids, but of naive stupidity. They talked about it through the afternoon. She could stay trapped in West Virginia, suffering the repercussions of her own nobility.
“Are you going to do it? They’re not going to just go away.”
“No, they’re not. We don’t always get along and yeah, there are problems. Their dad made mistakes with them, but someone had to come through.”
“Maybe we should have an exorcism. Is it still happening or what’re we doing? This whole thing is getting a little—”
Shelley didn’t know what John felt for the kids—pity, or something else. She listened and found his reasoning flawed. Something, she knew, wasn’t right about the way he wanted her to get rid of them. On the other hand, his great achievement had been his family, his boys. They were clever boys, and handsome. So who was she to have decided that he was wrong? Her son, Brian, was in Iraq. He had told her that he’d had his leave canceled, but John was sure that he’d volunteered to stay, which she categorically rejected. She had other reasons she didn’t want to admit, and she was suspicious, but not sure exactly of what. They lay there for a long while, too tired to move, until they weren’t any more than shapes in the dark.
“Are you awake?” Shelley asked.
There was no answer, and she left.
By the time Shelley got to the high school, the parking lot was nearly empty. She found Clover standing with a klatch of horny teenaged boys while they performed flip kicks on skateboards, the clicking sound echoing off the brick building. Clover frustrated and aroused them and that’s all she appeared to want out of it. Shelley tried to imagine her as a naïve girl who liked Barbies, but she couldn’t. Before she made Clover get in the car, she looked at the boys and most of them looked back at her, and she felt as if she were watching a play in which all the actors had agreed to pretend they were looking at a headless body slumped in the audience.
Clover got in the car and they drove away.
“You look nice.”
Clover ignored the compliment, opened her phone, then, with a touch of the screen, started flipping through images of dresses. Ecstatic moans echoed through the speakers and Shelley couldn’t tell if they were coming from the app or from outside, which bothered her.
“You want macaroni and cheese tonight?”
“I don’t care,” Clover said. “I need a prom dress.” She didn’t take her eyes off the screen as she fingered through row after row of dresses. After a few seconds of scrolling, she showed Shelley a green one that would barely cover anything at all.
Shelley tried to imagine the girl wearing the raw emerald silk. “I don’t think you should wear this. It’s too slutty,” she said, trying to keep her voice neutral.
Clover looked at her sideways but continued scrolling. Her eyes shrank as she did so, which made Shelley’s stomach clench. She felt a warm rush of anger. She wanted to slap her— she wanted her react to something.
“Turn it off—I wanna talk to you.”
Clover sighed and turned her head. The look on her face reminded Shelley of her brother’s. It was as if her eyes were open, but she was really asleep.
“What were those boys doing back there?”
“They’re waiting. They’re all just waiting,” Clover said.
Clover shrugged. Shelley tilted her head to see the phone screen better, while trying not to seem obvious. Sometimes at night, she thought in a nightmarish way that the phones were emitting a signal that was turning everyone into psychopaths. It was only a thought, and a crazy one, but the more she thought about it the sicker she felt.
That night, Shelley lay in her bed, which had been her mother’s bed, and waited for Marcus to come home. Her mother had never really been the greatest influence, but enough of her children had been raised to convince her that whatever she did was morally right which gave her something of a magnifying glass that showed her only pieces of the reality she needed to see.
Once, Shelley had opened one of her bank statements and observed that in one month her brother had spent $7,726.52 of a settlement on camera equipment, McDonalds, video game subscriptions, and clothes. Shelley had reminded her mother to her dumbfounded ire that her brother was stealing money from her. Her mother’s indifference to the theft, and to their overall financial worries, caused them to lose their house. Shelley had been angry with her for so long that she had gone beyond forgiving her, skipping right to resignation.
At around 3am, she heard a terrible mewling, and slipped onto the porch to discover the stray had given birth to three kittens. But the kittens were so alert, already twisting their heads to follow where she might go. And they were walking almost immediately, from their mother to the front door to the edge of the porch. The moon was dark, and dew beaded on the grass as bats parceled themselves on the tin roof. Shelley could have scruffed the kittens and returned them to the mother; instead, she watched them teeter on the darkness at the edge of the porch, understanding it for a few seconds as if it opened a way out of her mind, or into it.
Time passed. She went to bed.
In the morning, she found Marcus moving slow and heavy through the kitchen as he made oatmeal. When he noticed her, she didn’t move, but continued to stare at him. He finally looked at her, and his glance was ghoulish and full of anger. She felt a tingle in her gut, as if the ease with which his face warped into hatred made it clear that he was a psychopath.
“If you ever stay out all night again, I swear to God, you’ll be sorry.”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“Why are you asking what I’m gonna do? I’m taking care of you,” Shelley said. She had never heard herself sound indignant and justified before.
Marcus said nothing.
“Did you at least get the mailbox?”
The boy made a stiff gesture at the couch. On it lay a beige, plastic mailbox.
“And the change from the hundred?”
“Didn’t have any.”
“Bullshit you didn’t. A mailbox costs, what, twenty dollars? Where’s the other eighty, Marcus? We need that money for groceries.”
“You just bought groceries last week.”
“We need groceries for this week. You know,” she said, making what she felt was a tragic sound, “as a kid, sometimes all I’d eat for a week was crackers. I never had any money, I never had any food—I get days when I feel so stupid that I even took you in ‘cause I can’t even believe how rotten you kids are. That money wasn’t yours, Marcus.”
“Then you should’ve told me it wasn’t mine.”
She reached over and slapped him. The slap was weak and barely grazed his skin, but he was humiliated. “You’re just like your daddy, you know that?”
The two looked at each other, not attempting to answer. Shelley resisted the compulsion to hit him again. She wanted to ask if he was sorry for what he did.
Marcus’s eyes were rimmed in red, like a rotting fish on display. Then, for no good reason, he shouted, “Why couldn’t you just buy Clover that dress?”
“Why are you asking me that? What do you care?”
“You’re asking me?” He smiled at her with a look of domination, then cursed her, calling her a bitch and a cunt, but she didn’t react, only stared at him. Something, she knew, wasn’t right about what he’d said, but what exactly was amiss? She caught a glimpse of him staring at her before she quickly looked down. She walked away and he did not follow her.
After that, Shelley contrived, as often as she could, to get rid of the kids. She said nothing to them, but she was all the more careful and twice as secretive. Every day, she would sneak her cell phone from the house to make calls out in the woods. A discussion would follow: “Sarah, did someone from CPS call you? Okay, well they say they still haven’t recei—right, I talked to Bob.
He’s the one that—right. Okay. Who’s Bridgette Davis?”—always the same—“Sarah, it’s Shelley. Spoke to Bridgette Davis and according to her it hasn’t come across their desk. I just spent an hour with filing and they have no record of it. Now, is there any possible way that—”
Two nights after the paperwork finally did go through, she and John conceived of a sure plan. They would take the kids out for ice cream then leave them with CPS. If they would go to Dairy Queen, walk through the doors into the arms of CPS, everything might be different. Marcus wasn’t fully responsible for what he said, Shelley knew. But at this point it was a question of survival. If he thought she might be trying to get rid of him, he might do something dangerous. If she ever raised her voice to him again, he might try something. And she never allowed herself to say what she thought a million times: Do you ever think that maybe it’s you who makes everything worse? I mean, if you were me, you wouldn’t exactly want to hold on to a couple of bastard kids, would you? She was cut off from the normal routines of living. It frightened her to think how she might’ve stayed that way, joined her mother in peaceful oblivion, if she hadn’t decided to give them up. There are two kinds of people, she thought, givers and takers. She had been a giver all her life, but now it was time to take something for herself.
A day later, she was headed home from the woods. When she first spotted Marcus, it was at a distance, across a patch of trees. He sat cross-legged on a stump, smoking something from a homemade pipe. She wanted to scream at him, but she had slipped a gear in seeing his expression—the sorrow in his face was making a confession of whatever it was she suspected was going on in his life. It made her uneasy to see such a show of emotion in one who had been so angry. In that moment of surprise Marcus stashed the pipe in his pocket and slid off the stump.
Shelley watched him clamber up the hill, scale the fence and walk through the front door.
It was in his bedroom that they spoke.
“You hungry?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said, carefully blasé.
Shelley imagined him as one of the boys against the wall, smoking a pipe, making some off-color remark about a teacher, aggravating the girls walking to their parents’ cars. She told him that not only did she know he did drugs but that she had seen him, too—and he, therefore, knew he was caught. She looked at him. A feeling of boldness came over her. “I’m gonna drive you to school every morning, and I’m gonna pick you up when school gets out.”
“Because I’m worried about you, that’s why.”
Marcus looked up at her with a strange expression, then said matter-of-factly, “It’s Clover again.” The words seemed to come from a tender place inside him.
Shelley stepped back, surprised. It was wonderful, the way he cared for his sister. She was so certain of Marcus’s future, she didn’t feel the need to listen to him—to try to figure him out. An odd happiness filled her. Maybe life would prove to be kind to the boy after all.
“What about Clover?”
Marcus furrowed his brow. He explained a man made her do “everything,” as he put it. Having said this, he fell silent for a while, and, it seemed to Shelley, he was drawing an obvious conclusion. He looked at her, opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again.
“She said it was your boyfriend.”
It was a lie, an obvious one, but it was her fault for allowing John to meet the kids in the first place. She’d brought him over on the Fourth of July the previous summer. She was too tired to play this game—it was Marcus’s intention to make every lie a potential truth, a trait that stirred a queasy anger in her. “You know what,” she said, “I’m done.”
“Fine,” he said. His eyes closed, pressed tight, then opened. He looked at her with redrimmed eyes the color of cement. It was hard to tell if he was sneering or smiling. He seemed disappointed not to be able to make her believe it.
Dairy Queen always made Shelley think of summer. The wood-patterned walls, the ice cream, the sense that its patrons were eating there only because it was the cheapest, closest thing to a nearby body of water. It was also inexpensive, and for this reason John always seemed to choose it. She watched him roll up his sleeves and take a bite of a barbecue sandwich.
The plan had gone off without a hitch, really, and now Shelley was more at ease with herself. The CPS officers had come and taken Marcus and Clover. Rarely had Shelley seen anyone throw himself around as violently as Marcus. “We didn’t have a choice,” she’d shouted. “It’s not one of those situations where you have a choice. Do you understand?” Objectively, Clover had no reservations in going with them. It was the moment when Shelley should have thrown her arms around John. But she felt sympathy for the kids—she’d acted impulsively, then regretted what she’d done, because she wasn’t a selfish person, after all.
She collected their trash from the table and they walked to the parking lot. It was raining, a warm, steamy rain. When they got in the car, she turned the air conditioner on high, belting out a dull cool that smelled of freon. They talked about moving to North Carolina, and John drove faster than she expected. She thought about what Marcus had said and wanted to ask him about it. It was the sort of thing that could end badly, though her instincts told her it wouldn’t. As sure as she had an instinct for anything, she knew John was a good man. And yet, and yet. “Tell me something,” she said. “Last Fourth of July. Did you touch Clover? Hug her, anything?”
“Where did this come from?”
She met his gaze squarely. Though she couldn’t swear to it, she believed there was a hint of skepticism in his voice. “Never mind—forget I said it.”
So there it was. As easy as that.
When the road forked into the trailer park, John pulled into the drive and Shelley got out. It was getting dark. She walked the length of the yard, and in the short distance from the front of the car to the porch noticed blood on the steps. She didn’t move. She took in what she saw with dumb shock: the kittens’ brains had been eaten. Nearly cleanly, too, as if the predator had felt some sacred trust to not swallow whole one of its own.
Shelley looked at the moon and the black sky beyond. Tomorrow, she would begin to pack.
Joe Halstead’s fiction has appeared in Five Quarterly, Red Line, Crabfat Magazine, Turk’s Head Review and Sundog Lit.