It was 1992 when it all happened in the small town of Corvin Valley. The papers made it out to be bad, but in reality it was much worse. All you could smell was the heat, the melting, the sizzle of sweat dropping on the roads and the hiss of the bugs as they baked wherever they were. You could drive down any road and see the mashed up pieces of some carrion animal left there to rot, tiretracks and whatnot creating zigs and zags through it and away from it. Not even the birds, what might have been left still, would come down and peck at those kills. But, in truth there were no birds left to circle, no shadows overhead to blot the sun out, even if for the smallest second in time and to give just a second of relief. They all left to some other area. And those that did stay died out quickly and weren’t heard or seen from again.
I don’t remember much of seeing of that girl, Susanna Perkins. I remember her mother though. She was a bitch. Had been since high school. Always thinking she was better than everyone else. Well, she wasn’t, let me tell you that. Used to swear that she would get out of this shit-hole town and leave us all to die here while she was off living some dream life out there. God’s justice she’d get knocked up senior year. Wasn’t with Susanna, though. Most people don’t know this, so if anyone asks you didn’t hear it from me, but she got knocked up by Bill Jacobsen at some party. I wasn’t at the party, my sister was though. Said she saw the two of them walking up to the room and him leaving a little while later. She was still in there in the morning, passed out. They had to take her back to her house, left her sleeping on the porch for her parents to find. She was gone from school a few weeks later. Didn’t no one know where she was, but I heard that she had gone and aborted herself after she came to and realized. Had to stay in the hospital for some time. Killed the baby and almost herself, too. After that, she clammed up a bit. Still was a bitch, though. Lots of people felt sorry for her, even the ones that didn’t know what really happened. I didn’t feel for her, though. Now, here she is how many years later, staying here in Corvin Valley to die with the rest of us. Even after all that in high school, I never could stand her. She had Susanna some time after high school. The father up and left, though. Far as I can say, he made a sensible decision. You’re asking me about that little girl disappearing, though; well I don’t doubt that that girl just up and wandered off. Maybe when the heat quits it’ll be easy to track her down. Maybe then we’ll know where Susanna is. We all tried to band up together, go out and look for her. I seen her mom—that bitch—over there, crying her eyes out, saying Oh please, find her. I don’t know what happened. Doubt we ever will, but maybe we’ll find her yet. That looking for her lasted all of a few hours until the heat drove everyone indoors. That’s where most of us stay now unless we need something from the market. Then we go out. Problem is the heat’s gone and shot most of the air conditioners to hell, busted them down, and when you go to the market all you have is the smell of rotting fruit and the sound of flies buzzing all around you.
He hits me most days. Sometimes with his hands, other days with something else. A belt maybe. A ruler. A shoe even. Once it was a cereal box—kept hitting me with it while all the colored pieces were flying all over the kitchen. I had to clean those pieces up afterward. He yells. Most times I don’t know what he says. Just a lot of words that don’t really go together. He’ll come home from work and call me in and sit me down and he’s all dressed in his shirt and his tie and his nice pants and shoes and he yells and then he says something like You’re worthless, You’re nothing. Then he hits me. I try not to cry, but I always do. Mom left a year ago. I wish I could. I’m glad she’s gone, though. That way she doesn’t have to get hit anymore. Just me, for the both of us… Oh yeah, Susanna Perkins. I know her, or knew her, or whatever. She’s in my class. Has been since first grade. I always liked her, always wanted to talk to her but I never did. Always too scared. He’s right, I think, my dad that is. I am nothing.
They’s many a times I set hard down and wonder who I’s is in this world. Seems they’s no more important thing in this world, nor none greater problem than to be unsures as to who you is. I look in the skies and them stars and cards and warnings from preachers and whatnot for some direction as to that answer. Ain’t heard none from no ones yet. Don’t know if ever I will. Sometimes I’s feels like I’s living the wrong life, like I’s been meant to be doing something different. Maybe better, maybe worse. Don’t know. Just seems like it’s an awful big waste of unknown out there not to look at it and wonder at the least. Reckon that feeling ain’t nothing but regular living. Whatever life you got.
I found the two of them the other day. Was out looking for that girl, but I was feeling sick and dizzy. Started to walk home when I look over in the corner there on Market and Winneg streets, there in that gutter alleyway that runs between them two streets, and I saw two shoed feet sticking up in the middle there. I thought it was that Susanna girl, so I ran over there thinking I was gonna be a hero, write about me in the paper and be on television and all, but then I seen it was two red faced bums. They was dead when I saw them and still there when I came back with the police. Can’t suppose they could survive here in the sun like it is and has been. When I think of them though, I can’t imagine that girl could fair much better.
J. Gregory Thompson
I was born here, you know. I moved away for a stretch. Used to be a journalist up in the city up yonder, so I know what it is you’re trying to do—get a good story, ‘bout the heat, and that girl. I tell you, though, I sure as hell am glad I don’t do it any more. Every morning I would open that paper and look at the stories I’d write and the others around mine and I would always think My God all there is is death. I remember asking my editor why it is that all we print is negative—the killings, car crashes, murders, rapes, war stories, whatnot—and he answered simply that that is the life we all lead. It’s negative, get used to it. It’s important, he said, for people to realize what it is that’s out there, what ninety seven percent of people live and if some reader is fortunate enough to be of that three percent, then maybe he’ll be more appreciative of what he’s got. I tried some time after that to think that way, but after writing more and more about the bad things out there I got tired and moved back here. I thought I could get away from it all, moving back home, but some things just seem to follow. Maybe it really is just life. All I do know is that I won’t look at any newspaper, not here, not anywhere else ever again. I don’t know if ignorance is bliss or not, but at least it lets me rest my head at night and sleep without bad dreams.
The heat seemed a biblical plague to the people in the valley, a curse against them from some spiteful and vengeful spirit god. It lasted two months, coming with the disappearance of that girl. Reserves dried and water had to be carried in from other towns and cities and areas. As the heat continued, some members of the town fled. Those who did stay would look out the window at the burning ground to the outer dust regions of the earth and watch the spirit heat vapors rising upward from the land only to get sucked back into the sky, and they would question their own actions and pasts and memories, searching for some reason to their affliction, but never would they come to an answer, and so they began to live life again anew, in a belief they were continuing on their existence in purgatory or worse yet and they would not care how they lived, or loved, or hated. And then the heat fled from the town and things were brought back to normal again.
I sat on the edge of my bed that night. It was so hot, just the beginning of the heat spell. I don’t know how many hours passed. I was holding my pillow to my chest and I was rocking back and forth. In my head were songs and pictures and voices that were playing in my mind like a movie, all different movies playing together and I couldn’t really tell what was what from the other for the most part. I love you, he says. I remember I could hear that, over and over. I still hear it most nights. All lies though. Lies that echo around me in the room, then and still now. The lights were off that night but I could still see the room—I knew it in the dark. Our wedding bed. Surrounding me were the pictures of us. There weren’t any tears left, but I still tried to cry them out. All that came out was noise, though. And in the silver moonlight that’s coming in through the blinds—all shut tight except for the one little edge on the right—through the moon’s light I could see the reflection shining back, coming off the gun that was laying on the bed next to me. I was waiting for him to come home, but he didn’t. Still hasn’t. And I don’t think he will be. But I’m still waiting.
Some years ago, when I was twelve or thirteen, I visited the city with my mother. Don’t remember why we were there, maybe shopping or something. But as we walked out of one of the stores, it was night mind you, we walked past this building and there must have been two dozen people out front sleeping on the streets there, some smoking, others drinking, talking, laughing, staring. My mother walked quicker than normal then and held me close. I remember looking at this one woman, her hair all stringy and wet and dirty and her clothes all rags and she was crying. But not like regular crying, but she was rocking herself side to side and screaming crying, like the end of the world was upon her, and I remember I stopped and watched her. My mother tried to hurry me along, but I just couldn’t move away. I wanted to help her, but I couldn’t. Finally, she looked up at me and for a second, just a second, she stopped and smiled at me and then she looked the other way. I noticed then that she had a tattoo on the side of her neck, in big black blocks 11:26. I walked off and through the years forgot that trip, but I never forgot her. I would make up stories in my mind of how she got to be like that, of where she came from, where she went. Some of the stories were happier than others, some were sad, but still, every day at 11:26 I think of her and I smile a bit and wish her well. I only tell you this because it’s 11:28 right now.
Here’s a funny story for you. Happened some time back now. Little Jeremy Daniels is sitting there in the dentist chair, his mouth open and whatnot as the dentist does his poking and prodding and such in there with his mirrors and picks and what have you. The boy had to be no more than six, maybe seven now, mind you. And the dentist—guess he finds something in there—takes out his tools from the boy’s mouth and starts poking around with his fingers, grabbing on to teeth and moving them, or whatever a dentist does. You understand what I’m saying, don’t you? Anyway, as was told me later by Jenny Handler, the nurse, my neighbor—such a good young lady—the boy’s there tearing up, bout to start crying, making all kinds of little whimpers and moans and what have you, and all the while the dentist’s fingers are stuck inside this boy’s mouth. Well, I guess the dentist hits something right because that boy slams his mouth like a beartrap right down on the dentist fingers. Guess there was blood and screams throughout the room. You see that dentist walking through town today, you take a good glance at that left hand of his and see him missing two of them fingers at the nub. Bit them clean off, that boy did. It’s a true story. You can go ask Jenny if you like. She’ll tell you.
I don’t know what happened to Susanna. I seen her one night and the next she’s gone. She would have told me if she was gonna leave; I’ve known her for eight years, since kindergarten. We told everything to each other. Her mom’s been causing a mess since she’s been gone though. Always out screaming for someone to go help her. I went out on that first look, but I didn’t stay much time out there. Too hot, almost passed out and had to be brought in and sat down and they poured water over my face and arms. I do hope she comes back, or they find her. She owes me twelve dollars she borrowed from me the other day.
My mother always told me to watch after my younger brother Elias. Said, Silas, you are your brother’s keeper, and then she’d send me off to read the bible as she tended to him. He never was much smart, though. Might could have been if he’d stayed in school. I’m proud to say I finished high school. Elias though dropped right out after our mother died. Cancer got her and, truth be told, I’m happy she went at the end with how she was looking. I know her passing was hard on him. It was hard on me, I’ll tell you that. Since it was just us two left, since our father died down in the mines ten years back, we had the choice to either go into the coal mines or go out and join in on the war. We decided the latter suited us better. Gave us sunshine we would say. So we went off to the desert over there. After two years each we were let to come back home. I did my best over there, watching him and such, but I’ll always regret that last bout there. We were days from leaving for home when Elias goes off and gets himself shot. Wanders off to the goddamn sands where we were all told not to go. Told you he was never much smart. Or maybe he was just braver than I was since I was biding the rest of my time out waiting to come back here. I’d rather think he was dumb rather than thinking I was scared, but never you mind that such. The doctors said he’d make a right recovery. That’s what they told me, at least. Wasn’t ‘til we were on our way back home, walking that airport that I noticed his bad limp and saw the blood running out from his trousers in stains and I ask him bout it. He said he had to go and change the bandages. On the plane, he looks over and, smiling, says to me, says Silas, I’m trying to figure life out now, how it’s gonna be without. Can’t tell how I’ll find a girl now. I didn’t understand then, not ‘til I looked down at his pants again and saw the blood stain spreading out more in his lap and down his legs. He tried to cover it up with a shirt he had with him. And I looked back at him and saw him cry and he leaned over and hugged me and cried and cried into my shoulder and I knew then. When we got back, we both got to working in the mines, just like our father. We would go out at night to Roy’s and get a beer or two. That’s where he met Jean. Wasn’t long, though, ‘til he came to me worried bout how to tell her, wondering if she would leave him. Said he was happy with her, as happy as can be he says. But how would she love someone like him who couldn’t really love her back really. I told him to tell her, that she’d understand it all, but I guess I wasn’t that surprised when I come out the next morning, ready for work, and see him slumped over in the chair, his feet sitting in the dark blood pools coming from his arms. He wrote me a note. I still have it. I read it lots of the time when I’m feeling lonely. It says, Sorry Silas. Pray for me. I could never live deformed. Don’t think anyone could love me back. I’m sorry. I wish I could tell him how wrong he was, though.
George Deakins’ wife died some years back. That’s when he shut off from the world. He would have the groceries delivered to him, leave the money in an envelope under the mat, stayed all shut up in that house, just him and that dog of his, Regina was her name. Lots of people made up stories about him, some said that he tried magic to bring his wife from the dead, others said he was holding her bones in that house with him and would sleep next to them every night like she was still there. The most hushed story told that I heard though was about him and that dog, Regina. Kids mostly would tell it, like they were breaking the rules for telling it, but they said that he had gone crazy and that he believed that dog to be his wife. That he would eat with it, talk to it like it was still her, even lay with it, if you catch my meaning. Don’t know what the truth was, though. Probably all made up, but still, people like to talk and someone like George let people talk a lot. The only real thing I know for sure is that he died a few months back and that no one knew bout it until the grocers didn’t get their money for a week or two and they went in. The delivery boy told me that when he walked in the house all he could smell was a burning smell, like hair on fire is what he told me, and that he found George in his bed, died of a heart attack or some such thing, and laying next to him was that dog, Regina, dead only a couple of hours. Oh, you were asking bout that Susanna girl, weren’t ye? I have not the faintest clue where she got off to. Sorry I can’t help more.
Her ma was a beauty queen down in Austen, I believe. I heard the stories of her though, Sarah I mean, that’s the girl. I know her from school. She’s always been quiet, kept to herself. Always seemed she was better than the rest of us. She’s been gone from class now a few weeks. I just found out yesterday from my ma that she’s in the hospital over in the city there. Seems her ma wanted her, Sarah I mean, to be in contests and such as she herself was back in Austen, or wherever it was. When she was in kindergarten with me, Sarah I mean, she was always a little rolly liken the rest of us. Not fat or none, just more skin. This was twelve years gone back now. Anyways, when she got some older, maybe three, four years, she started getting to really skinny. Her eyes looked as they were popping from her face and her skin seemed see-through. Was scary now I give it some thought. At the time, though, no one seemed to notice much, as she was always away from us. And she was always sick, not showing to class for some stretches at a time. I never liked her all that much. Now I feel bad for not. But I heard the stories some time after that about how her ma would lock her in her room and keep food from her. No one knew ‘til lately how bad, but I hear sometimes she would go a week on a slice of bread and a couple cups of water. Her ma says now that Sarah wanted it, that she wanted to be like her ma and be a beauty queen. You ask me, though, I say it was her ma wanted it. Can’t imagine someone wanting to not to eat. I tried it for a day once and felt like I was dying. Anyhow, couple weeks back, she stopped coming to class. I found out later, that would be two days past, that she, Sarah that is, tried to kill herself by drinking too much water; she drank gallons and gallons and they found her in her tub with water and throw up all around her….Don’t mean to laugh or smile none, but seems awfully funny-like with all the other ways she coulda gone and done it, like the Watkins boy, that’s Silas’s brother, who did it with his wrists not so long ago. My ma told me about him the other day. Always knew Silas, he’s our neighbor. He’s a good guy; I like to talk to him. Never knew his brother much, though. But anyway, back to Sarah—seemed she was trying to show her ma something. Didn’t work though, or maybe it did. She’s in a coma now, that’s Sarah I mean. I guess she got her wish since she seems dead to the rest of us, even when she still is breathing. At least she’s getting fed through them tubes now, I suppose.
I been a cook down at Sue’s for the last thirty seven years. Don’t necessarily make me happy, but life could be worse. There’s a group of them come in here every morning bout the same time. Always order the same, coffees and toast around. On some days, some of them prefer a muffin to the toast, but the coffee is still the same. I seen them age deeper and darker every morning. Old men. Strange to watch the movement of life to death in their faces. They don’t smile as much as they once did. I allow the current state of things is a reason for that. Last year one of them died and I think that they all realize now that it ain’t that far off for them, too. Even when they see the lines stretching across their faces in the mirror, it takes more than a dead friend to remind them that their time is almost due. I set just a few years younger than them and it makes me consider things in a different light, also. They talk a deal about town news. Most of the talk these days is on that girl, Susanna, or the heat. Most seem to be making a darker deal of the weather than I allow. Seems to me it’s just the state of things now. Like living and dying, there’s only two ways it can be, good or bad. I try to see the between, as tough as that may be. The clouds’ll come and with them the rain and then, when that happens, everyone but me will be feeling an idiot over all their worrying and carrying on. The girl though, that’s a sad one. I hope she just left town on her own, off living somewheres out there. I surely do hope for that. When I do worry, I look to them old fellers over there, and see that though they may be afearing death and whatnot, they don’t show it. They may smile less, but they carry on like none of this is happening, like it’s just another day. Only difference is, they been ordering juice now instead of coffee. Too hot I suppose.
He came to me and said he had a problem and he was crying and so I helped him, I mean what was I supposed to do? It’s a mother’s duty to help her son when he has a problem, but I wasn’t expecting it when I came into his room. There she was, that girl, laying on the carpet, red all around her head. She slipped, he told me, slipped and hit her head and he didn’t know what to do, so he waited ‘til I was home from work and then he told me. I didn’t want to ask him what they were doing, what she was doing that she could slip from and hit her head. I thank God everyday that his father is dead and didn’t have to deal with none of this. I’d never seen the girl before, but she looked younger than Steven. I asked him and he told me she was two years younger, that he had known her since grade school, but he didn’t say no more and I didn’t want to hear no more than that. All’s I could think of as I bent down and felt her forearm, cold and sticky, my hands were shaking and I couldn’t breathe all that good, all’s I thought was how I couldn’t lose Steven, not after losing his father a year ago. I could imagine how he would be locked away, how I would sit here alone every night and think about him wherever he was and how when I would go to the store all the women and men would look at me and say there she is, how could she raise a killer like that and all the other muck people talk behind your back and I thought of growing old without anyone there, how I would never be a grandmother and I would die that way, I thought of all that when he told me it was an accident and I thought that it must have been because my Steven was too good a boy to do nothing bad like that and so I told him to get a trashbag and come back and he did and we rolled her over and that was the first time I saw her face and I feel bad now that I thought this then as I held her dead body, only twelve or thirteen years old or so, but I did, that she would have been a beautiful daughter-in-law and I was more sad of that than I was of anything else then, and we bent her small body, which was hard since her body was all stiff and such by then, and we forced that little thing into that bag and he went out and got another bag and he helped me bring the bags with her in them to the garage and put it into the backseat of the car and we set off in no direction but the woods, and after some time driving I pulled over and he ran out with the shovel he brought and after some time he came back and said that he dug it deep enough and the both of us carried that bag out there and dropped it into the ditch he had made and we both covered it up best we could and threw some rocks on top for good measure and neither of us said nothing as we drove back and still we didn’t say a thing as we went in and cleaned the bloody carpet as best we could and I went to bed and all I could think before I fell asleep was how the rains would wash that body up, but then a miracle came with the heat and no one went out for the heat. It was hard hearing everyone asking around about the girl and I felt bad for the mother, but what hurts me still the most is how most nights I walk by Steven’s room, the door shut tight away, and hear him crying. And most times when I hear him, I slink down to the floor where I am and I weep with him, a door separating us.
Finally, the heat storm passed. And when it did, when the skies opened up and rain drops were felt and seen and heard, the town seemed to forget what had happened during those uncounted months, and Susanna became just another memory of what the plague had brought. She became merely another piece of dust that the rain swept away.