Two cops want to talk to everyone who was in the Iron Horse the Saturday night Marlene was last seen. They come into Nathan’s aunt’s house and the older fat one sits on the couch and asks questions while the young freckled one stands, holding a small notepad, but he doesn’t write anything down. Marlene was at the bar when Nathan came in, leaning in close to a stranger, but after that, he didn’t see her. He remembers Whisper -- Whisper in her long blue basketball shorts and black t-shirt, bending over the pool table, small fingers wrapped around the pool stick. The cops ask if Marlene left with anyone, but he doesn’t recall the face of the man she was sitting with, only that he was pale white with a moustache and limbs that were too thin and long for the rest of his body, like a water-strider. The cops trade exasperated glances at his lack of relevant information and the one on the couch rolls his eyes.

That night at the Iron Horse, the water-strider man had marked Marlene. He leaned in, making a triangle with his skinny parted knees and the side of her thigh. She was wearing a red tank top and jeans, and when she threw her head back and laughed, the dim yellow bar lights glinted on her teeth and inside the round circles of her dark eyelashes. Marlene’s hair hung mid-back and swung lower when she tipped her head to swallow shots. In the near dark, she looked twenty-five or maybe thirty, but she is closer to fifty. When Nathan was in daycare, she used to wipe crumbs from his face with paper napkins. He didn’t say hello to her when he walked in to the bar, but moved into the crowd around the pool table, slipping between two men in slim jeans and button-downs to watch Whisper drive a ball into the pocket.

At pool, Whisper is a killer. She makes men feel at ease. She hardly looks at the table and shoots lazily. Whisper and Nathan discovered the economic benefits of her talent when they were sixteen and she won $100 from a cowboy who didn’t believe her scrawny arms could drop the ball. Her opponent that night cracked his knuckles with his thumbs and chewed a toothpick until it splintered.  She won his twenty-five dollars. He held the bills up out of her reach when she tried to take them and grabbed her waist hard with his other hand, pulling her hips towards his. She put her hand on his shoulder and kneed him in the balls. The men around the table all laughed and hollered and his face twisted red. He turned his back in shame.

 

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All Nathan knows is that after the pool game, Marlene wasn’t at the bar anymore and he and the Holden boys drank whiskey and cokes until Whisper pulled him by the hand into the back of somebody’s pickup and they all took the backroads to the Reservoir up by the old stone prison house. They jumped off the cement pilings into the water without taking their clothes off. Nathan dunked underneath the surface and held his breath in the stillness until the cold made the insides of his ears ache. Later when he tried to pull Whisper into the backseat of the truck with him, she laughed and slapped his hand away. He woke up in the morning on the bed of the truck, squeezed between the Holdens and Whisper had gone.

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Colt reads him the snippet from the newspaper about Marlene. They are sitting on the steps of Nathan’s aunt’s place, smoking Marlboro Lights and waiting for Colt’s brother to pick them up.

 

“Fifty-two year old Mekoh Valley woman missing 5 days, say police. Marlene Johns was last seen September 1st at Iron Horse bar in Canyons. Police ask that anyone with information about Johns’ disappearance contact them as soon as possible.”

She’s gone, Colt says. The guy you saw her with took her up somewhere in the mountains. Someone will pack in and find her bones up there sometime. She’s gone for sure. For sure.

Colt taps the ash on the metal step and grinds out his cigarette. The sun is bright on their faces and sweat sticks the fabric of Nathan’s shirt to his skin. He rolls stones beneath his rubber-soled tennis shoes and inhales smoke. When he closes his eyes back to the Iron Horse, he can’t find Marlene leaving with the water-strider man.

Two collarless dogs run by the steps, tails arced up. The leader dog has one brown eye and one blue. Colt points his finger and lifts his thumb, closes one eye and sights in on the dog with the mismatched eyes.

Bang, bang, he says.

 

 

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Nathan remembers Colt pointing at him like this. They were kids on the playground, six, maybe seven years old and Colt wanted to play a game. Colt was always inventing games. Each one had a backstory, and Colt assigned all the children who played a part. The two of them were always a team. That day, Nathan was a wolf and Colt was a human hunter who had been raised in Nathan’s wolf family. Together they chased down the others, who were deer. Nathan ran and growled and tapped the deer children who then became wolves.

Because he was a hunter, Colt had a gun. He pointed his finger at his prey.

Bang, bang! When Colt shot them, the deer children died. The wolves ate them. At the end of recess, all the children were wolves or dead. Nathan turned towards Colt, grinning his wolfish grin. Colt pointed his finger at Nathan’s head.

Bang, bang, Wolf, he said. You’re dead.

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The night Colt came back home after two semesters of college in New York City, Whisper came to Nathan’s bed for the first time. Nathan built a welcome bonfire at his aunt’s. He’d constructed a massive pile of broken boards and branches and doused it in gasoline. The fire was a good one. It burned high, but not too hot. Its yellow rose far in the dark sky, flashing across their faces and shooting still-orange ashes that drifted in the air and burned in the dry grass around them. Whisper moved in the dark just outside of the circle of chairs and voices, stepping down on the escaped coals until they were extinguished. Nathan watched her. She didn’t look at him.

 

A flash of the half-light outside the fire ring turned her face into her brother Chauncey’s. Looking at her, Nathan thought of that day behind the shed at Whisper’s house. He and Colt and Whisper were coming up the path in the woods from swimming and playing in the mud in the creek. Through the trees they could see Chauncey standing behind the shed, turned away from them. His head was tilted back and he was holding something with both hands in front of his chest. His body shook in tremors that started in his center. When they came out through the trees he heard them. He turned suddenly and stared. His right hand clenched a rifle and his eyes were crazy. Nathan thought they look like the eyes of the corn-stealing raccoon Nathan’s aunt caught in a trap under the porch, caged and frantic. The three children looked at him and Nathan was afraid. The mud and water from the creek ran down all their ankles in black rivulets pooling under their small bare feet. Chauncey’s chest contracted like he was letting go a deeply held breath. The sun had just set and its light marked his face in pink and gold. He smiled a wide, toothy grin and relaxed the grip on the gun.

Hey little sister, tell Mom I’m going hunting, he said. They didn’t talk about what happened behind the shed after that.

The night of the bonfire, Colt brought his schoolbooks and burned them. He shotgunned beers and told them he loved them all and shouted about rich fucking Columbia students until he stumbled away to his truck and careened onto the road. The fire burned to coals. Everyone else left except Whisper. Nathan drifted towards the house, and at the edge of his vision he saw her rise from the grass to follow him. The fire glowed around her silhouette, casting her shadow large across the ground until it caught at his heels. He didn’t look back at her but listened to her soft steps track him to the doorway. He paused and she put her hands on his back. She pushed him forward to his room. He turned around to close the door and she had already taken off her shirt. She had small breasts and small, pointed nipples. She laughed at his gravity and caught at his clothes with her hands.

He never dreamed the nights after they had sex, except for once. When he woke, her face was always turned toward him, her mouth opened wide. He thought that maybe she consumed his dreams, inhaled them while they slept, leaving his mind empty in the dark.  The one time he dreamed next to her, he stood immobile, naked, and up to his waist in the river. Whisper stood in front of him, long hair brushed over her shoulders and chest. She put both of her hands out towards him and reached into the space under his ribcage. Her hands went deep inside of him. She pulled out a thin black rope and tied the end around her waist. She walked backwards slowly into the deeper green away from him and lay down in the eddying water, spreading her arms wide. He couldn’t move to stop her. She floated away, drifting downstream on her back, moored to him by the black rope emerging from his solar plexus.

 

 

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She spent the night but never stayed with him in the morning. Around the others, she looked at him less than she had before. After a few months, her visits to his bed stopped. He told Colt that he felt strangely disconnected from her now.

She doesn’t want anything from me, he said, so I can’t give her anything.

Do you want to give her something? Colt asked.

I don’t know.

Colt tilted his head and raised one eyebrow. You certainly ain’t Whisper’s first rodeo, he said. She’s been around, don’t take it so hard. And all women want something. They want someone to feel their vitality.  

A few weeks later when Nathan went to Colt’s house to drop off Colt’s brother’s car in the morning, he saw Whisper leaving Colt’s bedroom. She looked at him when she passed, but said nothing. Colt took back the car keys and winked at him. That night they all swam at the reservoir and Whisper tackled him from behind and pushed him under the water. When he came up coughing she floated in front of him, treading water and grinned. He laughed and water came out his nose, and then she was laughing too.

They are all up in the woods for the weekend with a large group of their friends when Brittany tells them what happened to Marlene. Brittany’s uncle found Marlene’s body up by the reservoir spillway. Brittany tells them the story while Nathan and Colt sit and fish, floating their lines out into the water with bobbers. Whisper and some of the others are building a fire in the clearing behind them, but they come closer to listen. They all had Marlene as a teacher in daycare, and some of them are her cousins to some degree. Brittany’s uncle found her lying down in the field, Brittany says. Her face was pressed to the earth and she held a bottle. She drank too much, and went out towards the mountains alone. She might have waded through the canal and fallen and hit her head, but the police don’t suspect foul play. Nathan turns his face away from the others and shuts his eyes. She must have left the water-strider man somewhere and wandered away by herself. He can see Marlene in the moonlight, stumbling down the bank into the water, slipping on the slick algae-covered stones.

The sun goes down and they sit around the fire and drink beers in the dark. Whisper lays her head on Colt’s shoulder.

I told you, she says to him softly. I told you maybe no one hurt her. She just died on her own.

It doesn’t matter, he says, sounding irritated. She’s gone either way.

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Whisper lifts her head and the firelight flickers over her furrowed brow, but Colt is looking the other way. He swallows a large gulp of his beer. She stands up and walks away into the dark space between trees behind them. After a few moments, Colt gets out of his chair and goes after her. The fire burns down to the embers. A little later, Nathan has to pee so he goes into the trees, stumbling in another direction from the two who disappeared. Whisper and Colt’s alternating voices drift towards him. They are talking or arguing softly to each other and he can’t hear what they say. He pulls down his pants and goes against the side of a tree. As he finishes, he hears a loud, dull thwack and a cry. Zipping up his fly, he moves towards the sound in the dark. A flickering light comes through the trees ahead.

 

 

 

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Pushing aside branches with his arms, Nathan comes into an open circle of trees by the creek. Colt is standing beside Whisper holding his lighter up over her head and her face is tilted away from him.  She holds her nose with both hands and blood drips between her fingers and down over her mouth. Colt notices Nathan standing in the dark.

She tripped and hit her head, he says, shaking his head.  She’s drunk. He has blood on his knuckles.

Here, he says. He pulls off his t-shirt and presses it over Whisper’s hands to capture the blood. She tilts her head back and takes it. C’mon. Lets go back, Colt says, but she shakes her head.

You, she says and points in the direction of the campfire. You go back. He shrugs, turns away from them and strides back towards the others. Nathan moves towards her hesitantly. He puts his hands toward her, either in offering or supplication, but she backs away from him. Her eyes are her brother’s raccoon eyes behind the shed.  

You go back too, she says, releasing him. He waits a moment but she doesn’t say anything more. He turns and follows Colt back towards the fading glow from the fire.

 

 

Written by Addy

Photo Source: We Heart This

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