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Where He Ain't

Original fiction by Aimee DeGroat

Author photo courtesy University of Maine at Farmington

WINNER: Islandport Magazine | University of Maine at Farmington Short Story Contest

“Look here,” Becka said. “You’ve been doin’ it all wrong. Hold the tap against the bark, like this, and then give it three whacks. The third hit should sound different.”

Darlene bent over the tap, the hammer tight in her fist, and hit it three times. She cocked her head to the side as she listened for the sound to change from a tink to a thud. “Yeah, just like that,” Becka said, and sighed. Her hand on her hip, she stretched backward before bending again to slip the handle of the bucket over the metal tap.

Darlene looked up and cast a furtive glance over her shoulder toward the end of the driveway. After three hours of bending, her back ached and her thighs burned, but the pain helped keep her mind off the fear of getting caught here at Chuck’s. However, every time the girls took a break from tapping the trees on Chuck’s property, Darlene’s anxiety returned.

The March sky was a Technicolor blue stretching to the horizon. The bare branches of the maple trees that lined the rock wall beside the driveway stood out in sharp relief. The sun was brilliant, but the wind was a bitter, blowing cold that made Darlene’s fingers hurt to the bone.

Tapping Chuck’s trees had been Becka’s idea. Last Tuesday, at the factory where both women worked, they were assigned to the conveyor belt. They stood there on a rubber mat, each shifting their weight back and forth from one foot to the other during the shift, as they packed boxes of toothpicks into a crate.

“Think about it,” Becka said that day. “You and Chuck got all them maples. We can boil the sap down ourselves at my uncle’s sap house and sell the syrup here at work. Why not?”

“I’m not sure; it’s Chuck’s land,” Darlene said, looking past Becka’s shoulder, then down at her hands. She started packing faster, but lost count and had to unpack the box and start over again. Becka kept pestering her about it all week, and by Friday, Darlene reluctantly agreed. Now here they were, tapping maple trees in an icy March wind.

Darlene Had Always Loved This Place

Darlene had always loved this place, not just the house, but the long, curved drive lined with trees, the broad field that swept downhill toward the main road. She even loved the broken down barbed-wire fence that was covered in vetch and that sank into the Maine mud more and more every spring. When Darlene was still in school, she used to picture herself curled up on a window seat in the turret on the corner of the house, surrounded by pillows, reading a book, and occasionally looking down and out over that field. The line of maples beside the drive stood like soldiers beside the crumbling rock wall protecting her from the world while other school children would lumber by in their bus and dream of owning her house. Now she was all grown up and standing by those very trees, but still wondering what it would be like to live in this house.

Becka held a tap up to the old tree in front of them, placed the sharp metal against the rough bark, and smacked it with the hammer. Tap, tap, thud. Becka’s frizzy hair stuck straight out where it hit her jacket collar. The fluff of yellow above her broad, green-clad back made her look like a dandelion. Becka wiped her nose with the back of her hand and Darlene wondered if anyone had ever compared Becka to a flower. She smiled and then felt nervous again as she heard a car rumbling down the main road. She held her breath until it went out of sight around the corner. Darlene slipped a bucket over the end of the tap.

“That’s the last one,” she said, resting her hand against the bark as if it were a child’s back.

As they walked back up the drive Becka pulled out a smoke, paused to light it, and sighed deeply after taking a long drag. “What ya’ gonna do about this siding, anyway?” she asked, waving her cigarette toward the side of the house.

“What about it?” Darlene asked.

“You see there? It’s peeling. You gotta scrape it down, paint it. If you don’t then the wood’ll rot.”

She looked over sideways at Darlene, but Darlene was looking down and kicking at a loose rock.

“And what about the roof?” Becka asked.

“What’s wrong with the roof?”

“Needs shingles—or you could do metal,” Becka suggested.

Darlene had never noticed these things before, but as they walked closer to their cars, she could see that Becka was right. She ran her hand over the peeling siding and watched as yellow flakes peppered the frozen ground. A school bus bounced along down on the main road. Little foreheads and faces pressed against the windows as it rumbled around the next corner. Becka raised her eyebrows and stamped her cigarette out in the mud.

“Darlene, you can’t wait on stuff like that. This house’ll rot right into the ground, and wouldn’t that be something for Chuck to come home to? You live here too, right? You should be taking care of it for him. After all, it don’t really matter where he is. It’s where he ain’t that matters, and he ain’t here—you are. Okay if I use the can?”

Darlene felt a fluttering of panic in her stomach.

“Toilet’s broke,” she said. “Can’t you hold it?”

“What do you do when you have to go? Do you have to use a bucket to flush or somethin’?”

“Yeah…I guess; can’t you hold it ’til you get back to town?”

“You guess? No, I can’t wait. Are you really gonna make me cop a squat behind the shed?” Becka asked.

“The house is a mess . . . let’s go back to town. I’ll buy you a beer at Tubbs. You can go there.”

Darlene shuffled her feet, chewed on a fingernail, and tried not to look at the spot where the driveway met the road.

“C’mon, let me in. Tell you what, I’ll take a look at the toilet—maybe I can fix it.” Becka headed toward the door. “It’s locked,” she said, brow furrowed as she jiggled the knob.

Darlene took a deep breath and stared down the driveway as the sun began to set behind the hills. “Give me a minute,” she said, stalling.

Becka danced back and forth. “Darlene, you gotta unlock this door.”

What if they got caught?

Darlene could see there was no way she could talk Becka out of going into the house. What if they got caught? What if Chuck had someone looking after the place and that person showed up? What if Becka found out that Darlene wasn’t really living here; that she had never even been in the house before?

Darlene’s stomach fluttered as she watched Becka jiggle the doorknob again. She was nervous, but she also felt excited. Maybe she had known all along this would happen. Maybe this was why she had agreed to tap the trees in the first place. Darlene reached in her pocket and pulled out a debit card to jimmy the lock.

“Musta locked the keys inside,” she said, but immediately felt guilty about the lie.

As they stepped into the kitchen, Darlene could hear her own heart beating. The room was musty and old-smelling, but was also just as she had imagined—black-and-white checkered floor, tall white-washed cabinets, a deep slate sink. Darlene turned to Becka.

“Wait here a minute,” she said, and headed down a hallway.

“Aw, man, I don’t care what it looks like—I gotta go!” Becka protested and started hopping back and forth from foot to foot.

Darlene moved fast. The first door she opened was a closet. A vacuum cleaner started to slide out and she barely managed to slam the door closed before the hose fell onto the hardwood floor. The second door she tried was a bedroom.

“Why’s it so cold in here? Don’tcha’ have the heat on or is that broke, too?” Becka hollered, and then muttered, “What a dump.”

The third door Darlene opened was the bathroom. She took the back off the toilet and unhooked the chain from the handle before heading back into the kitchen. She felt an odd sense of pride in her quick thinking.

“There you go,” Darlene said, “second door on the left.”

She spun slowly around in a room she had dreamed about so often.

Becka sprinted past her. Darlene waited for the bathroom door to slam shut before she headed down the hall. She stepped into the living room, stretched her arms out, tipped her head back, and spun slowly around in a room she had dreamed about so often. Dust motes sparkled in the air around her like fairy dust in the late afternoon sun. Windows stretched from the cushioned bench seat that ran around the inside of the turret all the way up to the high, tin ceiling. Darlene couldn’t resist the urge to sit down. She brought her knees up to her chest and stared out at the dying light. She had moved to this town when she was nine and had grown up a few miles down the road in a tiny one-bedroom trailer that her dad had dragged onto an old woodlot. Her parents slept in the living room. Sometimes, after dinner and before bed, she walked up this road in the fading light and passed this house and dreamed about the day when she could live here.

Now, as Darlene sat in the turret window gazing over the field, it was the golden hour. This was the moment when slants of afternoon light hit the tips of the maples and the dead timothy grass in the field and made the whole tableau glow with amber light. The light felt like syrup, like you could drink in this cold, wintery, almost-spring day and then watch your sweet, warm breath spill back out over the hill, melting the patches of snow still lingering in the deeper shadows of the forest, making the sap run until the red buds pushed out of the trees’ tips, and finally turning yellow grass into green fields. She could hear the weird beep-buzz of a woodcock; it was early this year, but then so was the spring. She hoped it was a male, and she scanned the sky for the wild dip and dive of his mating dance. But if he was out there wooing his mate with his U-shaped courting, she couldn’t spot him.

Darlene remembered when she first moved to this town. She liked to sit at the front of the school bus to avoid Becka, who unmercifully teased any new kid. Then one day there was someone newer than Darlene, and she thought, “Finally! I will be left alone.” Instead, she found out that Becka expected Darlene to move to the back of the bus and join in the bullying. Darlene didn’t know which end was worse. Chuck always sat near the middle of the bus. As they got older and entered high school both girls hoped that one day he might sit next to one of them. He never did.

Chuck was tall and handsome and completely unattainable. When the bus pulled up to school he would duck into the cafeteria and merge with other football players. Darlene would join her small circle of friends in the library before class and Becka would head into the bathroom to smoke.

After graduation Chuck left town and she didn’t see him for five years. Then last summer, he just walked into Tubbs on a visit home. Darlene hadn’t yet gotten hired on full time at the factory and was working as a waitress. He came in with one of his buddies, ordered a beer, and played a game of pool. She was surprised when he asked her out on a date.

He took her to mini-golf of all places. He stood close behind her, leaned up against her, and placed his hands over hers on the club. He smelled of Dove soap and wood smoke.

“Like this,” he whispered in her ear, fluttering her hair, and swung lightly, knocking the ball forward. Being close to him made her so jittery that she excused herself to go to the bathroom. Becka was there by the sink, leaning toward the mirror and picking at her teeth.

“Is that Chuck that I seen you with?” Becka asked.

Darlene’s cheeks felt flushed and she splashed them with cool water. Whenever she was around Becka, Darlene always felt as if she were being weighed and measured and coming up short.

Both women were reflected in the mirror. Darlene and Becka—both were blonde, but while Darlene was thin and pulled her long hair back in a pony, Becka was heavy and broad and wore short curls. Darlene’s eyes were tired, her nails were ragged, and her shirt, even though it was her favorite, was old and worn looking.

Becka’s green eyes, her best feature, were inked in black liner that swept up at the corners. She used one long, smooth, ruby-red nail to pick at an eyelash. Standing side by side in front of the mirrors under the harsh fluorescents, they looked like before-and-after pictures, only Darlene could not tell who was the “before” and who was the “after.”

“I always thought Chuck was pretty hot.”

“I always thought Chuck was pretty hot,” Becka said. She leaned over the sink with a mascara wand in her hand. “Thought we was going to date once, but it never happened.”

Darlene could tell that Becka was wondering why Chuck had chosen her. Darlene didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t sure.

“Where you workin’, anyway?” Becka asked.

“At Tubbs.”

“Waitressin’? That’s chump change. You should come work with me at the factory; they’re hiring. How long have you and Chuck been dating, anyway?” Becka asked.

“Eh, for a few months. He asked me to move in and I think I might just do it.”

The lie flew out of her mouth before she could stop it.

Later that night, after Darlene lost at golf and spilled chocolate ice cream down her left breast, Chuck drove her back to her apartment. She felt bad about lying to Becka.

“Where do you live?” she asked him, and was amazed when he told her about the funky house with the yellow turret that he had bought as a fixer upper.

“I always loved that house,” she said.

He leaned forward and kissed her. He was not very good at it and their teeth bumped together as he stretched across the dark cab of his pickup, but still there was something. Some pull. She slid a hand down his rough, stubbled cheek and cupped his chin in her palm for a moment before reaching for the door handle.

“Have a good night,” she said before stepping out under the streetlamp. He stayed in his truck and watched her until she was inside.

Becka walked up behind Darlene and startled her back to the present. “Darlene,” she said. “I fixed the toilet, but why’s the water off?”

“Hmmmm?” Darlene half answered as she gazed out the window.

“The water’s off,” Becka said. “And there’s antifreeze in the toilet?”

“Oh,” Darlene said. She had forgotten that people did that when they went away. She knew she should feel even more nervous but she didn’t. She felt that eye-of-the-storm calm feeling that comes in the middle of a catastrophe. But Becka just shrugged, walked away, and started nosing around the room.

Darlene watched the last of the light leave the bottom of the field. She could hear Becka banging around in Chuck’s living room behind her and remembered the last time she had seen him. A few weeks after their date. She was still waitressing at Tubbs and he walked in with a few other guys. She caught the sleeve of his shirt as he walked past.

“Oh, hey!” he said and smiled at her. For a moment she couldn’t speak. She just smiled back and again felt that pull. She stepped closer to him, noticing as she did that he was already pulling away.

“I tried to call…,” she said.

“Yeah, um, sorry about that,” he said. “I’ve been busy.”

He looked back over his shoulder toward his friends.

Darlene looked down at her hands, cracked and dry from washing bar glasses, then thrust them behind her back.

“Nice to see you again,” she said and tried to brush past him.

“Darlene,” he said abruptly. “I enlisted. I head off to basic training in a couple days.

I had a great time with you; it’s just, you know, I don’t want to start something. I can’t get too tied down right now.”

She probably said something light, like “I understand,” or “Good luck to you,” but she couldn’t remember exactly. When he left the bar a few hours later they gave each other a little wave and he was gone. She had not seen him since that night.

Darlene was still inside Chuck’s house looking out the window when she heard the soft thrum of an engine approaching. She was not surprised when she saw a car turn off the main road and head up the drive. It seemed inevitable that she would get caught. She placed her forehead against the cool glass pane like those children on the school bus. The pines and scrub in the swamp on the other side of the road were disappearing into the gloaming and something, probably a deer, moved in between the trunks and deeper into the shadows. Somewhere between those hills and that swamp, right about where she used to live in that broken-down trailer, a fluff of smoke plumed up out of the woods. It stretched up into the encroaching night and faded into the stars.

Aimee Degroat is an aspiring novelist and travel writer currently studying creative writing. Her short story, “Where He Ain’t,” was the winner of the first Islandport Magazine short story contest open exclusively to students at the University of Maine at Farmington.