Read Migrators Online

Authors: Ike Hamill

Migrators (3 page)

A few minutes later, Liz appeared from the shed door. She held a drink in each hand. Alan stood to push open the door for her.

Liz handed him a drink.

“What’s the occasion?” Alan asked.

“It’s after five. Do we need an occasion? How about our son’s first day of middle school? Cheers,” she said and they clinked their glasses.
 

Alan took a sip. “You make a hell of a drink.”

Liz smiled.

“I found some of the barn paint in the shop. I’ve got plenty to do that door panel after I spackle it,” Alan said.

“Which panel?” Liz said. She turned towards the barn.

“The one with all the holes in it,” Alan said. From old photos, Alan knew that the Colonel had replaced the barn’s original sliding doors with the giant garage door it had now. The middle panel at the bottom had at least twenty small holes in it. You could see them from the road.

“That’s from when the Colonel tried to shoot a porcupine,” Liz said. “You can’t cover those holes.”

Alan laughed. “We’re memorializing the sport-shooting of rodents now?”

“Alan, can you just wait? Maybe do it after Thanksgiving, when everyone visits?”

“I can’t paint after Thanksgiving,” Alan said. “It’s getting dicey now. There’s only a few weeks of outdoor painting weather left.”

“Then can you do it next spring? Those holes have been there for years and years. One more winter isn’t going to hurt anything, is it?”

“Honey, you have to stop treating this place like a museum.
We
live here now. You bought the place fair and square. In fact, you were more than generous.”

“Alan.”

“No, I’m not going there. I’m just saying—this is
our
house. We don’t have to maintain it exactly how your cousins remember it. That wasn’t part of the deal,” Alan said.

“How about just for this year?” Liz asked. “Can we just put a pin in things for this year and then we’ll start making changes in January? That will give everyone another Thanksgiving and another Christmas with the house just as it was. Then we can start making our changes, okay?”

“You don’t think that you’re just setting the wrong expectation? I mean, painting the house purple would be one thing, but with those holes you’re drawing the line at what I would consider basic maintenance.”

“Let me tell you the story,” Liz said.

Alan wanted to roll his eyes, but he kept them steady, locked onto his wife. It was too nice a night to have a full-blown argument.

“My grandmother used to have her bridge club over every fourth Thursday. They took turns—Evelyn’s house, Louise’s, Peg’s, and then here. The Colonel would hide up the bedroom when they’d come. He’d work on a model, or a puzzle, or his writing. Halfway through their game one day, Louise said, ‘Oh, look!’ All the women rushed to the kitchen window to see. There was a little woodchuck sitting in the middle of the driveway.”

Liz’s face lit up as she told the story. Alan found himself grinning despite his frustration.

“It was sitting up on its haunches and working its little hands in front of its mouth. The four women were entranced by the cute little thing. But the Colonel had a blood-feud with woodchucks. They would burrow into his garden and eat everything. So as the women watched the cute little woodchuck, BAM! It exploded into a million pieces.”

Alan laughed.

“The Colonel was up in the bedroom, and he saw the thing through the window as he stood up to stretch. All he had up there was his shotgun, so that’s what he used to dispatch the woodchuck.”

“What did the women do?” Alan asked, giggling.

“They quietly went back to their game. They didn’t include this house in their rotation for a little while, but eventually they came back. The worst part according to the Colonel was that he had to hose down the driveway before any of the women would go outside to their cars.”

“That’s a riot,” Alan said.
 

“So that’s why we can’t fix that panel just yet. Someone tells that story every Thanksgiving, and they always point to the door after they get to the punchline.”

“But if the woodchuck was in the middle of the driveway, his shot would have never it the barn door. Plus, if the woodchuck exploded from the shot, then the holes wouldn’t be so tightly grouped, would they?”

“The holes in the barn door are from a different time. That’s when the Colonel tried to shoot a porcupine and missed. That’s not the point. It’s just that everyone always looks at the door after someone tells the story about the woodchuck. It’s a continuity thing. People like to remember the story and then punctuate it with a glimpse into something the Colonel left behind.”

“He left all this behind,” Alan said.

“Please don’t cover up the holes,” Liz said.

“Fine. I won’t, but you have to understand—I’m running out of things to do around here. Joe and I cleared all the brush and did all the landscaping this summer. We have a shed full of wood, and I cleared all the cobwebs from the front windows of the barn.”

“Alan!”

“I’m kidding,” he said. “I know about the sanctity of the spiders. I suppose I could get a job up at Christy’s. Maybe they need someone to count the returnable bottles or pump gas.”

“It’s only a couple of months,” Liz said. “Why don’t you get your fishing license? You could fix up the boat, couldn’t you? Spend some time on the stream?”

“Fishing.” Alan said. He flattened his mouth into a line. “Fishing?”

“Lots of people enjoy it. People kill for a few months off. Can’t you enjoy it?” Liz asked.

“If either us were the type of person who would enjoy a few months off, we wouldn’t be together.”

Liz nodded. “That’s true.”

“Maybe I could build a cabin or something out back. I could do a log cabin, like they used to…”

“Oh! Why don’t you start putting together your photos for Edwin’s book? When’s that deadline?”

“He needs them by the end of February. I’ve decided to wait until January before I look at those. You know I need time before I can evaluate my work.”

“Why don’t you take some pictures around here? That would certainly make it easier on the cousins once we start to make changes next year. If you took a tasteful picture of the barn door before you fixed it, then at least we’d have the photo.”

“That’s an idea,” Alan said. He got up to light the grill. “I suck at still life, but I could try to get better. Your cousins wouldn’t know the difference, I’m sure.”

“Hey.”

“I took some terrible photos out back today. I call them ‘Blurry Finch Against Washed-Out Sky.’ They’re very tasteful.” As the flames heated the grill, Alan opened the lid so he could scrape the grates. “Can we replace this grill at least? Some of this grease dates back to before we were born.”

“The Colonel said that the black stuff gives you all the flavor.”

“I bet,” Alan said. “Hey, it’s the offspring.”

Liz turned to watch Joe cross the driveway. He had a sheet of paper in one hand and a can in the other.

“Soda?” Liz asked. She pushed open the door for him.

“It’s diet,” Joe said.

“Still.”

Joe sat at the picnic table and laid the sheet in front of himself.

“Abandon,” Joe said. “To leave someone or something.”

“Yeah?” Liz asked.

“Vocabulary,” Joe said.

“You know what abandon means. Why do you have to study abandon?” Liz asked.

“I have to get the definition just right. I can know what it means, but I have to be able to write down the definition. Can I get a dog?”

“Is non sequitur on your list?” Liz asked.

“That’s two words,” Alan said. He paused in his scraping and looked at the tool he was using. It was a paint scraper that someone had enlisted into service on the grill.

“When we moved here I wanted to get a dog, but you said we had to wait. Have we waited long enough? Can we get one now?” Joe asked.

“Ask your father,” Liz said.

Alan dropped his hands to his side and glared at his wife.

“What?” she asked.

“How are you going to ask me ‘what,’ when you just made the dog into my decision?” Alan asked.

“Well, it is mostly your decision,” Liz said. “You’re home during the day, so a lot of the responsibility would fall on your shoulders.”

“I’d take care of it the rest of the time,” Joe said. “He could sleep in my room and I’d feed him and do everything.”

“We don’t have a fenced-in yard and there would be no good way to put one in even if we wanted a fence.”

“The Colonel never had a fence,” Liz said.

“You’re not helping,”Alan said.

“Joe,” Alan said. “We’ve got a lot of company coming for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Let’s wait until after then before we jump into any big changes, okay?”

“Okay,” Joe said. He turned his attention back to his vocabulary words.

Liz raised her eyebrows at Alan.

“What’s your next word, bud?” Alan asked Joe.

“Bias,” Joe said. “It means prejudice.”

“It can also mean to sway or influence,” Liz said. “The prosecutor tried to bias the jury in his favor.”

“And did it work?” Alan asked.

Liz smiled.

X • X • X • X • X

Alan woke but didn’t move. The moon was so bright that for a minute he thought he’d forgotten to turn off the big light on the front of the barn. Their bedroom had a bay window that looked down on the dooryard and the barn. If you believed the story, the little wing window on the right was the one through which the Colonel had shot the woodchuck.

Alan looked out at the sky. The silver clouds were moving fast across the stars. Under the covers next to him, the little lump that was his wife rose and fell with her deep breathing. Alan turned his head and stole a glance at the door. He had the sense that someone was watching him.
 

Liz groaned in her sleep and rolled over onto her back. She burst out from under the covers. Her wide eyes found Alan.

“Did you lock the door?” she asked.

Alan pushed up to his elbow.

“What? What are you talking about?” he asked.

Liz shook her head. Her golden hair looked silver in the moonlight. From what he could see of her eyes, they were crazy. She blinked slowly.

“Alan. Can you lock the door?” she asked.

“Which door, honey? The front door doesn’t open from outside and the shed door doesn’t have a lock.”

“Oh,” she said. “Someone’s in the house.”

“You had a bad dream.”

“I know,” she said. “But there’s someone here. Can’t you feel it?”

“I’ll go look,” Alan said.

He slid his legs from under the covers. He wore pajamas now—ever since they’d moved. Alan tucked his feet into slippers as he got out of bed. They were new as well. He felt like the father in a black-and-white sitcom as he crossed to the door.

The bedroom door didn’t have a normal mechanism with a knob to turn, it had a little spring-loaded ball that popped in and out of a socket.
 

“So much for stealth,” Alan mumbled. The ball clanked as he opened the door. The sound echoed in the upstairs hall. The door to Joe’s room was open a few inches. Alan looked through the gap and smiled at his son’s sprawled shape. Joe wasn’t fully at rest until he’d kicked all of his covers to the floor.
 

Alan retreated to the stairs. The moon came through the window and made sharp shadows of the balusters. Alan ran his hand lightly down the thick rail as he descended. The stairs creaked. The layout of the old house was a nightmare. It had been built back when small rooms were important to trap the heat. The Colonel took down some of the walls, but what remained was a maze of rooms. He checked the TV room and the den first. They were empty.

The living room was dark and deep. The north-facing windows didn’t get any of the moonlight and the far end of the room swam in shadows. Alan clicked on a floor lamp. His eye caught movement near the fireplace. Maybe it was wishful thinking. He’d set a tray of mouse poison there earlier in the week and he hoped it had some visitors.
 

While the light was on, Alan rolled open the door to the coat closet. He found nothing but long coats and hat boxes—more relics of the previous inhabitants. The dining room and kitchen were divided only by a wall of cabinets. This was the nerve-center of the old house. Alan stood in the threshold for a minute. The windows on one side looked over the dooryard and the barn. On the other side, the windows saw the driveway as it rolled down to the road.
 

Even with its fairly recent cabinets and appliances, the kitchen belonged to every era. It had clearly been the heart of the house since the first stones of the foundation had been dragged from the quarry by “ox strength and ignorance,” as the Colonel used to say.
 

Alan forced himself to move. He opened the door to the shed and flipped on the lights. The one switch triggered bulbs all down the shed and into the barn. Alan followed their path.
 

The screen door had a little latch on it, but that wouldn’t stop anyone. Just past that, there was a heavy entry door. It had a keyhole on the outside, but they didn’t have a key. On the inside the knob was plain. Alan didn’t see a way to lock it. He glanced around the rest of the shed and then shut the door anyway. He didn’t want to bother with sliding the door to the outside closed—it would be a hollow gesture.

Something about the knob caught his attention. You could push it in. A light went on in Alan’s head. He pushed in the knob and turned it clockwise. It stuck there and the knob wouldn’t turn. He reversed the experiment and smiled at his discovery. He left the door locked and returned to the kitchen.

He shut off the shed lights and froze.

Liz stood at the other end of the kitchen in her nightgown.

“There’s someone here,” she whispered.

“Where?” Alan asked. He ducked as the black shape swooped towards him.

Liz flicked on the lights.

Alan slammed himself back against the wall as the shape changed direction and darted back towards him again.

“Get a towel,” Alan said. He reached behind himself and grabbed the broom that was propped in the corner.

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