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The nights had always been difficult. Even before he’d left and always worse during the winter. Kate tried to remind herself of this often, lying awake in the bed she had slept in as a child, her mother once again asleep in the room below. Even in the years he had lain beside her there had always been something to torment her, to dance across her mind like the smatterings of freezing rain across her windowpane. Sleet coming in snaps and lashes of wind like paint flicked from a brush. Money, the small stacks of multiplication charts and spelling quizzes she’d left to grade, what she’d eaten for dinner and what she wouldn’t eat the next day. Later there were Jesse’s affairs, his silence, and always, always the boys. Especially Ethan.
She wanted to ask the older boy about it but could never bring herself to do so. She wanted to know what he remembered, if he had nightmares. Could he still see Danny Pfeiffer’s body being pulled from the woods the way that she could? Wrapped in a white sheet, his tattered shoes bouncing as the policemen carried him. The image haunted her, and she fought each time it emerged from the edge of her memory to force it from her mind.
In the few years since Ethan had found the missing boy hanging alone in the woods, he had never spoken of it. He never complained, never slept with the light on, never awoke in the night and called out for her. He’d simply turned inward, living as a recluse in his own mind. Kate thought of this often but never asked him.
On the bad nights there was nothing to do but wait. Perhaps she might try to distract herself with a book or a magazine, her eyes tumbling slowly through the pages while her mind wandered farther and farther away from her. The best she could do for herself was to drink bitter chardonnay from one of the tall plastic cups she got at the gas station, the ones with the New York Giants’ logo winding around the dewy surface. She could drink her chilled wine, pinched from a cardboard box on the top shelf of her mother’s refrigerator, and hope for sleep.
On the good nights there was simply too much. Her legs tingled with nervous energy, sliding up and down between the flannel sheets and the blanket so that the static electricity crackled blue beneath the covers. The good nights were the nights of plans, dreams, and strategies, all carefully charted, coded, and mapped, and all aimed at the common goal of fixing things, setting her life, once and for all, straight. Lists. Books to read, places to live, ways to keep her husband interested, and ultimately ways to meet new men in new towns.
On the good nights she sat at her desk for hours, scribbling her plans into a spiral notebook with a creased purple cover. Sometimes she made exercise plans or flipped through a cookbook full of ten-minute recipes for healthy meals, planning her diet for the month. She bought planners, books, and video tapes that she saw on television, using what little money she had put away for the boys’ education. In precise, symmetrical print she drew up her plans to eat healthier, to lose weight, to learn more, to leave, to take the boys far from Pipersville; she transferred them into her day planner, color coding and highlighting it so that everything was perfect and easy.
She sipped from the plastic cup and wiped the small puddles of condensation from the surface of the desk with the sleeve of her pajamas until her eyelids grew heavy, her vision blurred by sleep. Most nights like these she fell asleep at her desk, waking with a start when a bead of cold condensation trickled down to her wrist. Then, sometimes with the sun just rising behind the mountains, she slipped her notebook back into her otherwise empty desk and collapsed into bed.
That afternoon Kate put the last of her students on the bus and returned to her classroom to wash the boards and pack her things for the evening. The halls, emptied of children, were quiet, lined with colorful student artwork and corkboards papered over in green, blue, yellow, and red. Large cut-out letters spelling Pipersville Elementary School. Snowflakes, diamonds cut from silver wrapping paper and covered in gold glitter, hung from the ceiling on strings of gray yarn. They wavered in the trickles of warm air exhaled from the vents. Kate watched them turn and catch the light above her and could hear them bouncing off one another in the modest wake she left.
She found Mr. Wagner in her room, perched awkwardly on one of the student desks. He stood when she entered and smiled warmly at her. The principal was a slight man, shorter than Kate, boyish looking, but not in any laughable way. He looked like most of the men in Pipersville, tired, pale, and slightly round-shouldered. But while most of the men wore gray jumpsuits or overalls to their jobs working construction across the state line in Burlington every day, Mr. Wagner dressed himself daily in a teddy-bear brown suit and a canary yellow shirt. Only his ties changed and even then only with the seasons. Pumpkins and horns of plenty, snowflakes and reindeer, and so on. Having gone to school with them, all of Pipersville’s men looked boyish to her, locked into personalities and mental images formed years ago as children.
“How was class today?” Wagner asked, smoothing his tie.
“All right.” She began placing folders of student work into a canvas bag with the school’s mascot, the Vikings, ironed onto its broad face.
“I was hoping you might join me in my office for a few minutes. There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.”
Kate paused, a folder halfway into the bag, and looked up at him.
“No, no,” he said, holding out a hand. “It’s nothing bad. I promise. Good news.”
Kate didn’t move and Wagner chuckled.
“Don’t worry, Kate. I’d just as soon tell you here, but I didn’t bring any of the paperwork.”
“The boys are waiting for me.”
“They’re in the office. Mrs. Anson’s got an eye on them. They know you’re coming.”
Kate looked at him and he smiled. “Come on,” he said.
“You can’t tell me anything here?
“I could. But what fun would that be?” He grinned and started to leave. “Come on, trust me.”
Kate put her bag down and followed him into the hall.
At the main office, Mr. Wagner held the door and smiled when she thanked him. Mrs. Anson greeted her cheerfully from behind her desk and nodded to a small sitting area where Ethan and Toby sat flipping through magazines. The boys looked up when she entered but did not smile. Ethan went back to whatever he was reading and Toby lifted his eyes to the large window behind Mrs. Anson. He swallowed and rolled his lips over each other. Kate looked for herself and understood the boys’ silence. It was raining in small, frozen drops, which bounced off of the hoods of the cars and melted on the blacktop. The tips of the mountains in the distance were covered over in fog and cloud. In the parking lot, only a few cars remained, a small handful, and among them a maroon station wagon with black decals on the rear windows spelling out Taxi. Jesse’s cab.
Kate turned to look at Mr. Wagner.
“Is my husband here,” she hissed.
Wagner smiled innocently and gestured toward the door to his office.
“We thought it might be best if everyone were here.”
Kate turned from him and stepped into the sitting area. She tapped Toby on the knee with the back of her hand and handed Ethan his hat.
“Get your things. Let’s go.”
The boys looked up, but didn’t move.
“Now,” Kate said.
Ethan tossed the magazine he had been reading onto the table in front of them. Toby zipped up his jacket and stood.
“Kate,” Mr. Wagner pleaded. “Please. I understand that it’s awkward, but it is important.
The boys ready, Kate herded them through the door. Their heavy coats rustled loudly in the quiet office. She held the door while they left, and when they were in the hallway she pushed her way back into the room and turned on Mr. Wagner. The door clicked shut behind her.
“Those boys haven’t seen their father in three and a half months.”
Wagner stepped back and touched the end of his tie.
“You can’t just bring him in here without letting me know. He hasn’t even called them, Ed.”
Wagner started to apologize but was interrupted when the door to his office opened. Jesse stepped into the hall, rubbing his chin with both of his hands and looking at the tops of his boots. He looked different. A wispy blonde beard covered his face, long but well kept. His hair was parted off to one side and combed down nicely. He wore a heavy plaid shirt checked in blue and black with a corduroy collar and heavy looking royal blue buttons.
“I asked them to call me when things came up,” he said. “He was just doing what I asked. I’ve got a right to know.”
Kate laughed through her nose but said nothing. She felt awkward standing alone and put her hand on the door handle.
“Whether you believe it or not,” he continued, “I care about this stuff. I want to hear what Ed’s got to say.”
The room fell silent, and Mrs. Anson excused herself to a back room.
“Please,” Mr. Wagner said. “Let’s sit down. I think you’ll both be happy about this.” He started to move toward his office. “It’s great news for Ethan. Can we—”
“You can tell me right here,” Kate snapped.
Wagner looked at Jesse for a brief moment. Jesse lifted one boot and scratched the back of his leg with the toe. The principal frowned and rubbed his chin. Without a word he ducked into his office. Kate looked out the window, watching a cloud slide over the surface of the mountains. The wind rattled the glass, and she could see the antenna on Jesse’s cab bobbing up and down. After a moment Wagner stepped back into the main office and handed them each a thin packet of stapled papers.
“These are Ethan’s scores from the state exams last month as well as testimonies from each of his teachers and the results of a battery of tests a specialist from Burlington ran with him.” He paused and when no one spoke continued. “As you can see, he’s in the ninety-ninth percentile in every category the state tests, reading at a post-high-school level already. I can’t really say why nobody caught it any sooner, but the specialist has recommended him for gifted study.”
“What does that mean?” Jesse asked.
“It means that three days a week they pull him from his regular classes and have him work with a specialist,” Kate said.
Wagner laughed awkwardly. “I hate to say it, but the sixth grade’s just a waste of his time. I think he might know it too.”
Kate took her hand from the door and looked at the portfolio.
“I don’t want to push anything on you,” Wagner started. “I understand that pulling him out of his classes might be a little jarring, but look this stuff over. Think about it. The last page is an agreement that allows us to pull him. If it’s something you think you’d like to try with him, sign that sheet and we’ll start him in the program. The specialist has already agreed to drive over a few times a week to work with him. Just think about it.”
“Is that such a good idea,” Jesse asked. “He’s already pretty isolated, don’t you think?”
He looked at Kate and she quickly looked away.
“We should have had him see somebody,” he said.
“Jesus Christ,” Kate mumbled.
Jesse looked at the papers in his hand, and Kate glared at him.
“He seems like he’s doing all right,” Wagner said. “This could be good for him.”
Jesse flipped one of the pages and ran a finger along a line of text. He tucked his chin into his shoulder, and Kate could hear his beard bristling against his shirt. She flipped to the last page of the materials and tore it free from the staple. Wagner patted his pocket, looking for a pen, but she stepped around him and leaned across Mrs. Anson’s desk for one. When she’d signed the form she left it on the desk, dropped the pen on top of it, and exited without looking at either man.
In the thick darkness Kate blinked her eyes. She rolled onto her back and brought a hand to her face, inching it closer until she could make out its shadowy outline. Hard drops of rain clicked against the window. Just through a gap in the curtains she could see the tops of the pine trees dancing in the wind. A fringed black line quivering against the purple sky. No moon. She rolled herself over again, but it was no use. Kicking aside the covers, she rose and turned on the lamp at her desk. The light shot up along the wall in a wide vee, leaving the corners of the room dark. Kate placed her hands on the cold surface of the desk and stood silent. She allowed herself a moment to think, letting her shoulders drop and rolling her neck. The thoughts came swirling like snow blown across the pavement, gusting to the fore before dissolving away from her. Names of Ivy League schools, cities in Europe, images of London and Paris she had seen in old movies, Jesse, his beard. She’d wanted to mock him, to say something witty about supposing he was a man now. He looked handsome with it. Were there other women? She would know them of course. She’d have gone to school with them, maybe even worked with them. Private schools. Yes, private schools in Burlington or Albany. She could take the boys there and they could leave for good.
Kate forced herself to feel the cool wood beneath her fingers, the moisture on her palms. She pinched the bridge of her nose and tried very hard to cry but nothing came. For some time she stood there, and then, just as suddenly as she had leapt out of bed, she dropped her hand to her side and moved toward the door. She slipped out of her room and into the inky hall quietly and padded as softly as she could to the boys’ room. At the end of the hall she lifted her shirt and used it turn the doorknob. The door popped loudly and Kate froze, holding it closed and listening. One of the boys moved and she squeezed her eyes closed. She could hear the bedsprings groaning. Then silence. She waited a moment longer before slowly pushing the door open.
She saw a long lump where Ethan lay asleep facing the wall, and craning her neck around the door she could see Toby lying on his back with one leg sticking out above his blankets. She stepped into the room and carefully pulled the blanket back over him, lifting his leg gently with just the flat of her hand. A part of her wanted him to wake up, to stir accidentally and hug her, sit up in his bed and whisper to her that he couldn’t sleep. She could let him sneak out and make him some hot chocolate. If they were quiet enough her mother would not wake up. They could sit in her bed and talk about the places he would like to live. Kate looked at the sleeping boy. He didn’t move.
She pulled the door closed slowly and quietly. She could feel the tension in the knob and hear the spring slowly unwinding. She waited a moment to be sure, and hearing nothing made her way back down the hall and to the stairs. The old carpet was thin, and the floorboards creaked beneath her. At the stairs she did not take the rail, knowing all too well how it squeaked. The tricks of her youth. Skip steps to minimize the noise. Ease onto the edge of the step, gripping it tightly with your curled toes. Her mother’s room was next to the stairs, just off the kitchen. Her father slept alone in an apartment off the porch, which he had built for himself many years ago. No one had ever said a word about it. One summer the wood piled up in the yard, and then it was built and he became footsteps on the porch and the reason everyone had to whisper as soon as the sun went down.
In the kitchen, Kate opened the cupboard below the sink and took out the Burlington phone book her mother kept. She placed it on the table next to her mother’s ash tray, spilling over with half-smoked Newports, and took her plastic cup from the dish drainer. Carefully. Tip toeing across the cold tile, she opened the refrigerator and began to fill the tall cup from the box of wine on the top shelf. She angled the cup so that the wine slid in quietly. When it was full she brought it to her lips and took a long drink, pausing once in the middle to get her breath. Then she topped off the cup and shut the refrigerator. She took up the phonebook in her free hand and made her way back up the stairs.
In her room, Kate set the cup on her desk and sat down. She took from the drawer her spiral notebook and ran a finger down the jagged crease in the middle of the purple cover. She took a long drink from her cup and opened to the first blank page. The metal coil at the edge of the notebook spilled over with ribbons of paper left where previous pages had been torn out. At the top of the page she wrote “Schools for Ethan” and then, so she wouldn’t forget, she flipped to the next page and wrote “Colleges for Ethan.” On the page after she scribbled “Books for Ethan to Read.” Then she drank and wiped the cold condensation off on the side of her shirt.
She found the listings for private schools in Burlington and transferred all of the names, phone numbers, and addresses into the notebook. This set her mind to thinking and she quickly opened to another blank page and wrote at the top of it “Real Estate Agents.” She flipped through that section of the phonebook, copying the names and numbers of all the agents who looked nice in their pictures. She could feel the wine settling in now. A gentle numbness in her cheeks. She pushed on the flesh below her eyes and felt the heaviness but not the cold. Quickly then she flipped to her colleges page and began to write down every name she could think of. The University of Vermont, NYU, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Rice even. Boston College. She bit the end of her pen and tried to think of schools, but she got excited and flipped to a blank page. No bother with a title, she simply began to list cities. Burlington, Montreal, New York, Syracuse, Toronto, Philadelphia, New Haven, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco. She took a drink and nearly spilled before writing Paris and London and then underlining them both. The pages made a loud tearing sound when she flipped back to the colleges page. She wrote “OXFORD” in large capital letters and circled it. Finally, she sat back, smiling. She stood and moved toward the door but sat back down when names began to fly at her. She took them down as quickly as she could. Authors she had never read but always wanted to. Shakespeare, Milton, Dante. Homer, Hemingway, Joyce, of course. Fitzgerald, Austen, Wordsworth, Dickens, Bronte.
This continued for some time, spilling over onto more pages, different lists. Kate tried to figure how many books the boy could read in a month. She tried to order them like a course might. Her hand began to cramp. A cold bead touched her knuckle when she paused. She wiped it on her pants.
At last she could wait no longer. She took up her notebook and finished the last of her wine. Standing, she bumped her knee on the corner of her chair. The impact sent the chair tumbling over, and it thudded to the floor. Kate froze, holding her breath and waiting. She did not bother to pick it up. Outside she could hear the wind, but the house remained silent. She opened the door and bounded softly down the hall to the boys’ room.
When she opened the door she could hear them rousing. She felt her way to the wall and turned on the light between their beds. Toby leapt up, frightened. His short blonde hair stuck straight up on one side. A red crease on his cheek. He squinted at her and began to look around the room. Kate sat on the edge of Ethan’s bed and shook him gently.
“Mom,” Toby whispered.
“Shh. Shh. It’s OK, honey. Everything’s all right.” She shook Ethan again and he rolled over onto his back. “I’ve got some ideas for you guys. Come on, get up. You want to hear them?”
Toby kicked away his covers.
“What time is it?”
Kate shook Ethan again.
“Ethan wake up real fast. I’ve got something I want to show you. Sit up.”
“Show me tomorrow,” he said without opening his eyes.
“Come on. Wake up. This is important.”
“What time is it?”
“Sit up a bit. Look at this.” Kate opened her notebook and tried to put it in his lap.
“What is it,” Toby asked. He swung his legs over the edge of his bed and rubbed his eye with the palm of his hand.
Ethan tried to roll over but Kate pulled on his shoulder and he did not resist.
“Dammit, Ethan. Now look at this. You can at least pretend to care. Sit up and look.”
He sighed and did not open his eyes. After a moment he pushed himself up onto his elbows and looked at her with one eye.
“Here, look,” Kate said. She turned the notebook and laid it open in his lap. “Remember what Mr. Wagner was talking about earlier? I was thinking about it and it gave me some good ideas. Look.”
Ethan took the list in one hand and read a few lines. He put it back in his lap and let his head fall sharply back so that he was sighing up at the ceiling.
“Can’t I read it in the morning?”
Kate snatched the notebook from his lap.
She stood and started to leave, stopping between their beds. She leaned down close, near to his face and whispered violently.
“Sometimes you act so much like your father that I could strangle you. Do you think I wanted to stay up all night finding all of this out? You’re an ingrate.”
“What is it, Mom?” Toby asked.
“You could at least be a little grateful.”
Ethan said nothing and Kate turned out the light. The room fell to darkness and she turned in small steps, trying to feel her way out. Her hip banged into the dresser and knocked over whatever was on top of it. She found the door and closed it behind her. It stuck a little and when she pulled it, it clumped loudly shut.
In her room Kate ripped open the desk drawer and threw the notebook into it. She picked up her cup, found it empty, and let it fall to the floor. The rain had begun to freeze on the window in little crystals. The silver glint crept up the glass in a small crescent. Light from the desk lamp caught on the beads of ice, rendering the window gold and opaque. Kate took her notebook back from the drawer and sat on the end of her bed. Staring silently into the glass she began to pull at the ribbons of paper stuffed inside of the spiral coil. Bits of paper floated into her lap and onto her bed sheets. The strands bumped along the metal and she laid the curling strips in a small pile beside her, continuing until the coil was clean. The notebook opened smoothly, and Kate tore from it the pages she had written. She laid each leaf in her lap and when they were all out she closed the notebook and left the remaining bits of paper in the coil. It was only then that she began to cry. She allowed this only briefly and tucked her chin under the collar of her shirt and wiped her face. Of course she could apologize to them in the morning, but if she waited the words would cloud her mind all night and she would never get to sleep.
She slipped into the hall as quietly as she could and made her way to their room, pushing a hand along the wall in front of her, taking tentative steps until she’d reached the other end.
The doorknob was cold to the touch and she took her hand from it when she heard Toby’s voice, quiet but not at all a whisper.
“Are they sending you to Burlington?” he asked.
“Go to sleep,” Ethan said.
“I can’t sleep.”
“When do you think they’ll test me? Did Mr. Wagner say anything about that?”
Kate touched her forehead to the door frame and covered her mouth with her hand. The room was silent for a short time.
“When would you leave?”
“Come on. Go to sleep.”
It was quiet again.
“I’m sorry,” Toby said. His voice was soft and round like he was trying hard not to cry. “Do you think you’d have to go soon?”
Kate closed her eyes as tightly as she could and bit the skin on her finger with her front teeth. Her forehead hurt where it pressed into the wood. One of the boys moved, and his mattress groaned beneath him.
“I’m not going anywhere. Nobody said anything about going anywhere.”
“Well why’d they make such a big deal?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to leave?”
The floorboards creaked and Kate felt the muscles in her leg clench and burn up. She listened closely, holding her breath. The room was silent for what must have been five minutes.
“Do you ever have dreams about Danny?” Toby asked.
“What kind of a question is that?”
“Justin Kear said that Danny Pfeiffer hung himself in the woods behind our house and that you found him.”
“You were there.”
“Yeah, but I don’t remember. I try sometimes, but I don’t really remember any of it.”
“Why are you asking me about that?”
Toby didn’t answer.
“You can tell John Kear to mind his own goddamned business.”
Kate breathed into her hand.
“What do you want to know that for anyway, huh?”
Kate’s hand was warm and moist against her lips. She could smell the wine on her breath. For a moment she felt guilty for listening to them. She thought she might leave but didn’t move.
“Sometimes,” Toby started. “I don’t know. Sometimes I have this dream that I wake up and it’s really bright out and you’re still asleep. I look out the window and Uncle Rick’s truck is gone and the sun is way up over the mountains. I know we’re late for school and I try to wake you up but when I stand up you aren’t really there.” Toby paused but started again, speaking slowly. “And Mom. I can’t hear Mom getting ready. I can’t hear her anywhere.”
Kate pinched the bridge of her nose with her shirt and ran her head back and forth along the wooden doorframe.
“So I go into her room. I think maybe she left without us. I can’t hear Gram downstairs or nothing. So I go into Mom’s room to wake her up or see where she is, but when I open the door she’s hanging there by her closet like Danny. I always wake up right then, and I always want to go and look but I’m too scared.”
Kate let herself sit down, sliding slowly down the wall until her temple was pressed up just below the doorknob.
“One time,” Toby said, “I had the dream and so at school I made her a card and when I got home I tried to play some Rummy with her, but she said she didn’t want to. She was smiling for a minute when I gave her the card, but later on I heard her crying in the bathroom.”
Kate rubbed her palm into her cheek and coughed. She froze but the boys had not heard. The room was quiet for a long time after that. Neither boy spoke and no sound passed from movement. Kate felt a sharp ache where she sat on the floor. The wood felt cool through the fabric of her pants. She waited a long time for one of them to say something. Downstairs one of her mother’s old cuckoo clocks chimed softly. Kate thought she might rise and go back to her room, but Ethan spoke.
“I can’t even remember when it was, but once when I was really little—it was when Dad was around—I was out on the porch singing some stupid song and playing with those old paperweights Gram has out there, those dumb looking ones with the flowers and the bugs frozen inside. Anyway, I looked up and Dad was standing there in the door watching me. I felt real embarrassed; I guess he knew though. He said, ‘You ought to sing more often. It makes your mother happy when she hears you boys singing.’ He kind of smiled and started to go back into the house. He said, ‘It’s about the only damn thing I ever heard her say could do it.’ He left right after that and went back inside. I probably spent the next month trying to sing every time Mom was around. I felt like an idiot, but every time I knew she was there or I knew she was watching me, I tried to sing. It never once made her any happier. Not even a little bit.”
Toby didn’t respond. Kate could hear Ethan moving in his bed. Then there was nothing. All of the energy she’d had fell away to weakness and fatigue. At first she wanted to go in, but she could think of nothing to say. So she sat alone in the hall and listened. There were no tears, just the running of her nose and saliva at the corners of her mouth. She took the deepest breaths she could, and when they came out they shuddered through her whole body. She waited for the boys to continue, for Toby to respond. She waited a long time with the wood cold and hard against her head and beneath her. Downstairs the clock chimed again, and afterward all she could hear was her own breathing, shallow and steady, the boys asleep.
Colby Cuppernull is a writer currently living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "Best Laid Plans" is taken from his currently unpublished manuscript, COLD COMFORT, which follows, in linked short stories, the life of Ethan Hager as he struggles to reconcile his desire to leave his hometown with the knowledge that his presence there is the only thing keeping his mother and brother from certain self-destruction. The manuscript in its entirety was a runner-up for the 2010 Mary McCarthy Prize in fiction. Various stories from the novel have been nominated for awards and/or published in both print and web-based journals. In 2013, three stories from the manuscript were collected and published as a chapbook entitled BEST MAN by Winter Cardinal Press. It is available on www.amazon.com. Currently, Cuppernull is shopping a novel of the modern lost generation set in the same haunting regions as COLD COMFORT and working on a western. Mr. Cuppernull can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.