Debris

Kevin Hardcastle Click to read more...

Hardcastle photo for ShenandoahKevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario and now living in Toronto.  He was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and his work has been published in Word Riot, The Malahat Review, Little Fiction, The Puritan, PRISM International, The New Quarterly and Joyland.  He also has stories forthcoming in The Fiddlehead and Best Canadian Stories.  Biblioasis will publish his debut collection of stories in 2015.

Come pale morning the old woman found a greycoat squirrel drifting dead in the swimming pool waters. It travelled slow to the south-end, trawling leaves and surface algae. Pegged there its wasted tail stropped the lip-molding. Emily Moore stood outside the short-fence with her roughskinned palms resting atop the arrowhead pickets. Beyond the pool and the little farmhouse were acres of untended field. Wildgrass and rogue wheats the color of desert sand. A tractor half-sunk into black, black soil. Two silos ringed with rusted boltwork, old lettering worn faint and unreadable.

“Bob,” she said loud. “We got another in the pool.”

Nobody answered so she turned and made for the sliding doors to the kitchen, open yet with the drawn curtains rolling against the wind. He came out before she got there.

“Yes, dear. You called.”

“Oh shh,” she said. “Get that net and your shovel.”

The old man stood a head taller than her, broad shouldered and bowlegged, heavy plaids and worn-out jeans.

“How big a hole we gonna need? My back ain’t my best friend today.”

“Ah,” she said. Looked over to the pool. “Maybe three scoops. No more’n four. The poor little fella saw less winters than he should have.”

*

They interred the squirrel in the damp, dark soil. Tucked him in with the flat of the shovelhead and pinned a treebranch cross there at the head of his small plot. That potter’s ground had dozens more crosses set in awkward rows, very few lost to wear and weather. Emily had written on all of them in black ink, such things as: ‘Raccoon. Spring. 1998.’ Markers had likewise been posted for chipmunks, groundhogs, rabbits, one wayward cat. The old man had complained early on about the burials but it turned out that if they didn’t lay out the bodies his wife couldn’t sleep at night. So he’d quit his griping and kept at the planting. No prayers were said.

*

Emily walked the grounds maybe a mile out from the house, following the length of a long and bending stream. There were blockages where water built and ran humped over sodden leaves. The old woman carried a cherry-branch walking stick and she worked the little dams loose and watched the current take them on bit by bit. An hour past and she could see rainclouds and their vaporous tailings. Steadily they went with the rains below like shuffling fibers. Her knees were singing to her about the humidity. She’d had to retie her long, gray hair more than once on the walk and now she just let it blow about the shoulders of her overcoat.

“Jeez, it’s close,” she said.

On the way back the day turned eerie and very dim. A sparrow flock boomed from a huge and naked oak out in the fields, wound themselves inside out and took off to the north. Emily left the creekline and headed across the fields toward the farmhouse. She had very good eyes and she could see Bob out in the backlot, like a toy figure stood there. He raised one hand and pointed at the skies that shifted behind her. Emily didn’t look.

*

Winds whipped the little house while they lay in their places in bed. They’d left the window slit-open and it whistled at them. The drapes were near sideways for minutes at a time. Emily’s bedside lamp had its bulb turned low and she had laid her book down beside it a long time ago to study the sounds of that storm. Thunderclaps landed like atomics and could be felt by the bedsprings. She had thought the weathers would carry past but it all seemed to have sat down and settled right in that farmstead. Finally she reached up into the lamp and turned the key. The room didn’t go truly dark somehow. Once in a while fork-lightning flashed white daylight through the curtaincloth, scented the air with electric.

“This is a bad one, ain’t it?” Bob said.

“Yes. I don’t remember the last like it.”

He had corralled her in against him and she let him. His arms with their cord-muscle and mean elbowknobs, skin soft as old paper. She closed her eyes and then opened them again.

“Jesus H. Christ,” she said. “What the hell is that?”

“I took one a’ them pills,” he said.

“When?”

“Few hours ago.”

Emily whacked him on the thigh through the covers. The two of them lay there quiet for a while with the rains battering the roofshingles.

“Well…” she said, and turned around, took his face in her hands.

*

The kitchen entranceway fairly shone near sunrise. Emily had the door open and the floortiles were warming under her bare feet. The storm had picked up debris from across the county and seemed to have flung the all of it down on their plot. Emily waited for Bob to dress while she brewed coffee on the stove. She thought the power would be out for sure but it wasn’t or at least wasn’t anymore.

They went outside in their coveralls and boots and Bob made for the garage and his barrow and work-tools. A length of eavestrough had come loose at one end of the building and he had to shift it wide to get the door open. Emily watched him fuss with the thing for a few seconds and then she walked out from the house. She’d not made it to the poolside fencing and yet she knew something was wrong in there. The waters were dark with steeped mud, and thatchwork layers of leaves and sticks lay over entire sections of the pool. Near the centre a young woman’s white body carried past in a torn nightgown, lower back and ass up at the surface while her arms and legs and hair dangled like she was reaching for something at the bottom.

Emily didn’t know how she got over the fence but she was over and bonesore in her legs. She called back toward the house. Her hand searched the water for part of the girl’s gown but it couldn’t reach. When she got into the pool the cold all but stopped her heart.

*

The body lay under a sheet on the stonework behind the house for the better part of the morning. The police had come by the dozen and they’d studied the pool and the girl and they’d surveyed the farmgrounds that sucked the boots right off their feet. A towering, ginger haired cop called McGuire spoke to Emily and Bob at their kitchen table, his hat over his kneejoint. He asked them a few questions and none too hard. Emily sat swaddled in so many blankets that she could barely stand when the cop got up and put his hat back on. McGuire smiled and she shook his huge hand before the cop left out to get his instructions from the newly landed detectives.

By evening they were very much alone. Bob had gone back outside and tried to work against the creeping dark, stacking the loose breakwood into a teepee as tall as he was, great mound of leaves and long-grass underneath. While he worked by twilight Emily ran a bath, sat there on the closed-over toilet watching the tub fill up. She had a bottle of beer in her hand and there were two empties on the bathroom countertop beside her. She drank the last of the one she had and took the bottles out to the kitchen. Came back with another beer and again sat there waiting. When the tubwater started gurgling down the overflow she went over and turned the taps. Emily started to take her robe off and then stopped. She stared down into the tub for a minute. Then she reached in and yanked the plug.

When she came back outside Bob had already lit the stack. It smoldered low at the heart, the pilings too dense and too damp yet. Emily shut the sliding door and walked over to him with two beers in hand, offered him the one. Bob looked her up and down.

“You okay?” he said.

“Okay as I’ll get today,” she said.

He put his left arm around her like they were gone to the drive-in. Smoke started railing out from somewhere in the build and carried up into the dusk. Flash of yellow. Nothing. Leaves started curling.

“Here ‘tis,” she said.

*

Over the mottled fields she went. Half an hour out she got to the treeline and scoped the firs. The sun hung high and furious but the inner woods were lit only in patches. Emily walked on over the forest floor and its pine-needle carpeting. She had the cherry-stick and used it to shift face-height branches, cobwebs thick as string that broke and trailed ghostly from their peggings. Eventually she reached a break in the trees, a shieldrock ridge that looked out over a low clearing. A narrow clay path led down to the place in a series of switchbacks. Emily didn’t go any further.

A cabin sat crooked on the grounds below, no more than three rooms. Satellite outhouse with a shovel-dug shithole. The place had foundered a little on the southwest end but the windows and doors were intact and the frames square. Nothing stirred. Still, Emily waited there for the better part of an hour before she started down the grade.

*

She made it back to their fields in time to see her husband on the drive back from town. His truck rolled tiny in the distance, spitting dust on the concession road before it turned off for their long laneway. Bob parked and went into the house and came out again, looked around. Went back inside.

He was in the john when she came through and hung up her coat. She waited for him in the kitchen but she didn’t sit, just leaned her hip to the sink-counter. He pissed loud and quieter and louder yet, sound plain as could be with the door wide open. Little one-shots afterward that rung the bowl. Out he came cinching his belt on the walk. When he saw her standing there he stopped for a second and coughed. Kept on with the buckle before stuffing in his shirt-tails.

“You know nobody can sneak up on me,” he said.

She blew air hard over her lips.

Bob went over to the counter, brushed his shoulder against hers as he passed. He started up the stove-burner and left the coffeepot to brew atop it.

“Did you go by the cop shop?” she said.

“I did.”

“They find her people.”

“There ain’t any people.”

Emily shook her head.

“I don’t think I can believe that. Even if it is true.”

Bob nodded. He set a cup down for her and then poured another. When he sat at the table he didn’t drink and he didn’t talk.

“What else?” Emily said.

“They said the girl had a blood-alcohol level that coulda sat a buffalo down. As well as her veins were run through with Benzodiazepine.”

Emily put her hand to her mouth for a minute and let it drop. She stared out the windowglass at the muckfields. Bob turned in his chair.

“Tell me you ain’t been out there through the woods,” he said.

Emily sipped at her coffee.

“He’s covered his tracks pretty well,” she said. “But that little son of a bitch is livin’ in that shack.”

“Come on now.”

“I just don’t know for how long he’s been there,” she said.

*

Two mornings later Emily found the backdoor to the garage swinging on the breeze. Little marks by the keyhole cylinder. She had Bob inventory his tools and whatever valuables he could think of. In the end he had lost only a Phillips screwdriver and a half-gallon of Varsol. He said he would’ve be happier were the truck gone.

They fished a blue jay out of the pool the next morning and couldn’t figure out how he got in there and how he couldn’t fly off when he did. They’d slept little and Bob dragged ass when he went for his burial arms. He came back with a wood-handled trowel, the blade tarnished by the edges.

“Where’s your shovel?” Emily said.

“I do not know.”

She just looked at him, shoebox in her hands that carried the little birdbody.

When they made it to the plots they stood bewildered for maybe five minutes before Emily dropped the box and headed back to the house. Bob called after her but she couldn’t be turned. He knelt awkward on the turf, bit at his bottom lip as he found a workable position. Then he dug the hole with the trowel and tipped the shoebox. Beyond him in the makeshift graveyard all the crosses had been plucked and they were gone and the naked soils told no stories anymore about who they’d put under. The old man tamped earth down in the new plot and kept eyeballing the grounds to see what else might be out there with him.

*

A lone cruiser sat in the road in front of the farmhouse. Officer McGuire heard Emily out as he stood on the flagstones behind the kitchen door and then he walked the fields, got smaller and smaller until the trees took him. An hour later he resurfaced at another opening perhaps a hundred yards to the west and made his way back to the house. He had red lines in his cheeks and forehead from the branches he’d caught. His boots had doubled in size by the mud and he left them outside and stood beside the kitchen counter in his stockinged feet.

“If anyone’s staying out there I couldn’t tell,” he said.

“He is,” Emily said. “You could see it’s been disturbed.”

“I did everythin’ but bust into the place,” said McGuire. “Sure, there’s signs that it’s been tampered with. But that could be raccoons or kids or goddamned anything.”

“It’s the son,” she said.

The cop looked to Bob and he just clamped his lips together and shook his head but once.

“The last anyone saw him he was banged up in Moosejaw and then supposedly put in hospital out west. Even then they were petty charges,” said the cop.

“It’s known pretty well that he did things he didn’t catch a charge for,” she said. “Even a young man like you has to have heard it.”

“I’ve heard a lot of things,” the cop said. “And I know the elder Campbell was a murderous son of a bitch but there just isn’t anything to say that it carried in the genes.”

Emily got up from the table and took the cop’s huge forearm in both hands through his jacket. Looked long into his eyes.

“I hope that’s the truth. ‘Cause I was in school with the father.”

McGuire stared back at her for a few moments and then down at the counter. Cleared his throat.

“You got my card to call me,” the cop said. “I’m not kiddin’ when I say you can get me on the horn anytime if something’s up.”

“Okay,” she said.

McGuire took his hat up off the counter and put in on. He stood high enough that his elbow sent a rack of hung pans rattling. He stopped them one by one. Then he went out with a nod and set about bashing his mudcaked boots together in the yard.

*

Two weeks later another girl was found half-eaten by a fertilizer slurry pit, this on a soy farm not ten miles away from Emily and Bob’s place. The cops came out to collect her body. The girl had been lost after a bush party, left out walking down the county road with her friend, both of them sixteen years old. The friend still hadn’t turned up. This time there were news trucks at the site and special investigators down from the city. There were floodlights ablaze on those grounds until after midnight and the farmer who lived there was kept under watch until the cops cleared him of any part in it and went back to guesswork and conjecture.

The next morning two squadcars pulled up outside while Emily was frying eggs. Four cops came to the door and they were all bruisers, but none as big as McGuire. He stood front and centre when Emily opened up for them.

“There any way to get to that shack in a vehicle?” he asked her.

“Not with what you’ve got,” she said. “But you can drive out across the rocky part a’ those fields if you want. Save you all but the trail-hike.”

McGuire tipped his hat to her and all of the cops went back to their cruisers. They rolled up over the curb and carried on through the highgrass, bucked hard as they made for the treeline.

*

That evening after dinner Bob lay slumped in his armchair with his belt unbuckled and his thumbs hooked into the strapleather. Emily shook him by the shoulder. He stared at her wide-eyed. He was the kind that woke up all at once and she’d always been impressed by it.

“What is it, Em?” he said.

“I think I’d like to go to mass.”

She wore a red blouse and a long skirt that swam about her ankles. Her hair was pulled back tight to a ponytail.

“Well, alright,” Bob said, and set about putting his pants on proper.

*

They’d gone to the old church on the hill. It had a lookout tower at the height of the grounds that saw over the entire county, the big inland river and the sea that it came from. Emily lit a five-dollar candle before mass. Candles set in three rows of glass tubes with the most of them aflame. The rows went upward to a plateau where the bones of Jesuit priests were kept in cases of wood and gold. Finger bones of the one. Part of a pelvis. Sheared-off shortribs. An entire skull sat on a narrow cushion in the largest encasement, a rectangular hole punched into it above one aural canal. Upon the darkwood walls of the church were pegs full with old crutches, canes, bracings. After the mass they were quick to get out of their pew, but Emily stopped and came back to the candles and lit three more and then she went out. She’d not paid for any of those and Bob didn’t bring it up.

*

There were leaves and baubles of knotted wildgrass in the entryway when they got home, the front door open and drifting. Bob started to go inside and Emily grabbed a fistful of his shirtcloth.

“You don’t go in like that,” she said.

“What?”

“Are you kidding me, Bob?”

The old man stared into the dimlit house and he was breathing very hard. He shook his head and stepped out. Took hold of Emily at the elbow and moved her ahead of him. Walked back to the truck. There he asked Emily to get inside but she would only wait on the liner-step while he called the police. She tried to see into the almost pure dark on the property flanks. She could not see a damn thing. Bob got off the phone and they both climbed into the truck and locked the doors and then Bob backed out quick and drove to the concession fork where they would see the cops clear on the approach.

Waiting there they watched him come out into the road in a hunch, stepping nimbly between over the middle line of a barbed wire fence, perhaps fifty-yards from where they idled. He stood tall and full and looked all around. Emily nearly ducked but froze halfway. The Campbell boy had a short, dark beard and a good head of hair and decent clothes. He wore a backpack and seemed to be cinching it tighter. He loped across the road and in five strides he was gone. Bob started to put the truck in gear.

“My god,” Emily said. “Do we run him over?”

That caused Bob to switch his foot back to the brake and hold the truck. After a long, long minute the driver-side mirror lit in colors. Bob shifted into park again and waited with his one leg dancing on the floormatting. Emily reached over and steadied it by the kneecap. She spoke to him softly until they were not in the road alone anymore.

*

The police could not locate Campbell and over the months to come they searched the cabin and the grounds so many times they were forced to move on. Sightings were called in from highway rest-stops, diners, officers in other small towns as far as ten hours drive away. No new bodies turned up that could be attributed to the killer, and those he’d already made were buried in the town cemetery according to which side of the fence a Lutheran, or Presbyterian, or Catholic Jesus lived on. Emily and Bob paid out of pocket so that a small stone stood for the first girl, who nobody had come to collect or shed a tear over. When the snows came that stone became awful hard to find.

Toward Christmas Bob took ill and had fever dreams and delirium that scared Emily. In the early days of it the only symptom of sickness he had was that he kept feeling like he had to crap even when he’d just emptied his bowels. They’d not thought much of it until he was cold always, weak by his legs. Soon he had two lumps form in his asscrack just below the tailbone and in three days it got to where he couldn’t walk or sit and Emily drove him to the emergency room in the town hospital. He’d been taking her leftover hysterectomy pills behind slugs of whiskey but still he had to lay sideways on the benchseat with his head in her lap.

“This is stupid,” he said to her.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

The tires bucked on the snowpack and busted roadways and when they did Bob snarled and knuckled the flooring.

“Can’t you drive any smoother?” he said.

“I can stomp the brake and see if that don’t put you to sleep until we get there.”

“Sweet Jesus,” he said. “Come on now.”

He got in to triage and gave his information standing, went through to an examination room at a hobble and lay face down on the bed, his jeans pulled down for his ass to show. There he shooed Emily but she wouldn’t leave him.

“I’ve seen parts of you that you ain’t ever gonna see,” she said. “What more is there?”

“I don’t like you seein’ me sick like this.”

“It’s fine.”

“Hell it is,” he said. The words were part muffled by the pillow. He kept his face there until the doctor came in. The doc knew the name of Bob’s malady within seconds and it would have been called boils when they were younger but medicine called it a cyst now. It bothered Emily to hear it. She stood and squeezed Bob’s hand and he just looked at her. Then she did leave.

*

She gathered him clean underwear and folded it neatly on the bed. Made up a small bag with his toothbrush in it along with other necessaries. She came out to the kitchen and looked at the clock. Went for the cupboard and pulled a bottle of the good whiskey and poured a small glass. The little house interior showed strange in the haphazard lighting that she’d made by flicking whatever switches caught her eye on the way through. The kitchen was almost entirely dark and Emily was dark inside it when the Campbell boy passed by the sliding doors and could be seen plain through the vertical blinds by the glow of the full and low-hanging moon. Emily stopped where she stood and so did her drink and so did her heart. She waited a minute after he’d gone before she went to the bedroom and dug under their bed for the rifle.

He was quarterway across the field toward the woods when she stepped out onto the cold concrete and sighted him in the lunar pale. The killer Campbell made his way slowly with the snow high on his shins. Emily had no coat on and his shape started to shake against the sight. She cussed herself out and went back into the house and came back with a toque pulled over her ears and with her coat unfastened and drifting on a gentle easterly. Nobody was out there anymore. Emily looked and looked and then she pulled off her hat and pitched it into the snow.

*

When her husband was discharged home Emily tried to tend to him as he lay sideways watching nature shows on the television. He wore just boxer shorts and a t-shirt and his legs were patchy with grey hair but otherwise had muscle that seemed younger than the rest of him by decades. He’d oft get up and shuffle over to the bathroom or to the kitchen for another beer. Bob had been run through with saline and antibiotics and had color in his face again and part of his appetite back. Every few hours he had to settle in a sitz bath of warm water and salt to keep the lanced skin of his asscrack from any chance of re-infection. Emily never had to bother him once to do it. He’d have the plastic basin rinsed and filled and sat over the toilet and rinsed afterward before she could tell him anything. He kept the clock by it and Emily knew that he must have been in a great deal of pain in the days before if he were so hellbent on making sure he didn’t forget them.

*

In the small hours before dawn Emily left the house and walked the fields. She had no flashlight but she saw the tracks clearly and trod in them to her knee. Every step felt unnatural to her and she thought about branching off through the snowpack but she did not want snow in her boots to wet her socks. She carried a leather shoulder bag and had the rifle slung high so that the butt wouldn’t drub the white. The new sun was but a sliver when she broke the treeline and travelled on through the pinerow corridor.

She’d enough layers to last the day through and had to loose one to stop herself from sweating as she sat on a stump above the clearing. The sun could not reach the cabin yet and the building sat there in its crooked way, dark and weird and without life. When sunlight finally hit the hollow Emily backed off into thicker cover and shook pins and needles out of her feet. She took up a handful of snow and ate it in bites. It was then that she heard a dry pop, what she thought might be a treelimb that broke loose somewhere in the wood behind her. But the sound had not come from there. She got down low and edged out toward the shortcliff.

There she watched as a patch of ground behind the shack rose, only visible by the fir-needles in the snow and by two perpendicular black lines that widened as the cellar hatch was lifted in fits by a man likely moving up a set of steps. Emily lay down on her front slowly. She had the rifle in both hands and readied and she drew the stock to her armpit. She dragged the shoulder bag in front of her as a rest. Her heart thumped and she tried to slow it. The hatch rose enough that she could see Campbell’s face and the length of his arms raising the trapdoor. She pulled. Crack of riflefire in the hollow. The door fell shut again.

*

Bob hauled a barrowful of paving stones and cement-mix from the truck to the garage. When he wheeled his way back he came upon a cruiser idling at the roadside. He eased the barrow down. The cop McGuire sat in the driver seat with no partner. The sidepanels were thick with claymud dried hard by the warm spring sun. The tires were filthy with runoff from the farmhouse lawn.

“Mornin’,” Bob said.

“You all doin’ okay out here?” McGuire said.

Bob nodded.

“We are,” he said. “How’re things with you?”

“Quiet,” McGuire said. He raised his huge hand and put the car into gear and drove off down the county road.

In the house Emily slept late. She’d woken just once in the night and had hustled to the bathroom blind and by the memory of her footsoles and then came back to bed. Her dreams were many and each started strange on the heels of the one before. She dreamt of waters and blackwoods and a barn foundering and collapsing on itself while a lone dog scattered not fast enough in the sidefields. She dreamt of driving in a car with no roofcovers. She dreamt of the dead girls, daughters all and none of them hers.

Emily got up and brushed her teeth and combed through her hair for a little while. She stepped outside onto the sunwarmed pavestones behind the house. An early spring had brought the snows down to sopmush over the fields beyond. She wore her bathrobe and walked the cement in her slippers. Bob had drawn the poolcovers back and the waters were hung through with grit and grass and twigs. Emily took hold of the fencerail and studied the pool. She was about to go but stopped. There in the far shallows spun a tiny, brown body, held under by a tangle of mossy branchlets, the tail trailing wide and drawing in the water gently. After a long time watching it she went for the net.

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Discussion

4 Responses to Debris

  1. Pingback: DEBRIS published in Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review | Kevin Hardcastle

  2. nashe16 says:

    There is something hilarious and almost charming about the idea of a rifle-wielding old woman who takes the law into her own hands. There is also something disturbing about the idea of a woman who insists on giving burials to the animals that drown in her pool but is also willing to shoot a man simply because she suspects him of being criminal. This is one of my favorite elements of Noir: nothing (aside from the film) is black and white. The reader isn’t sure whether Campbell is actually a criminal, and therefore whether Emily is justified in her actions. What’s more, we even begin to question our own moral compasses as we attempt to justify the murder of a young man. Noir thrives in uncertainty, and “Debris” left me unsure.

  3. Pingback: “In the Cage” to be published by Biblioasis | Kevin Hardcastle

  4. Stephen O'Connor says:

    A high quality story; goes beyond the Noir genre and hold up as a literary piece. Only one thing troubled me from a plot perspective. As nashe16 indicated, we can’t be absolutely sure that Campbell is the killer, (though in all likelihood he had it coming). However, at one point it was stated that two young women had disappeared. One of them was found dead and the other had not been located; made me wonder if the other poor woman might be stuck in his underground bunker with Cambell’s corpse. That dampened the satisfaction I might have felt in watching rural justice meted out. All in all, great characters and masterly writing.

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