Susan and Billy
A story by Colin Pilney
Susan awoke slowly, savoring the delicious sensation of alternating between sleep and consciousness, until the final oscillation brought her upwards, back into the world. Then she was fully awake, as pleasantly as slowly rising from a warm salted bath and getting wrapped in a plush towel. She stretched, pushing aside the duvet, and luxuriated in the sensation of returning to her body, and yawned. She opened her eyes and blinked. When she opened them, it was still Spring. Between the curtains of the bedroom windows she could see the daffodils in the back garden heralding the new day with their silent golden fanfare. She turned to look at her husband, Charles, still asleep beside her. How she adored him. His features, usually so strong and granitic, were softened, almost baby-like, in the early morning glow. Susan kissed him softly, so as not to wake him too early on a Saturday morning. She arose, put on her robe, and stole from the room. The children would not be up for a little while yet. Aaron, Thomas, and little Jennifer, each the most gifted player on their soccer teams. How she adored them. They loved their early-morning weekend practices. They also loved doing their other activities, their schoolwork (they knew how important that was for their future), and listening to their parents.
Susan went to the kitchen and brewed a cup of herbal tea. She carried her cup and saucer to the seat in the bay window at the front of the house, where she could admire the neatly-clipped front lawn and its flower beds. All the yards in their development were equally well-maintained, she noted with profound satisfaction. She sipped her tea. "Ouch," she exclaimed petulantly, her reverie disturbed, "So hot!" She angrily put the hurtful tea ambushed in its cup back on the saucer to let it cool. The magical mood had been ruined. She sat back, glaring at the teacup and its contents. Without realizing it at first, she began to reflect on her other, childhood traumas, and on what Charles had said when he came home so late from work on Thursday night.
[Ed.'s note: Our lawyers have pointed out that the next section is nothing more than a farrago of verbatim selections from a number of pieces of short fiction which have recently appeared in highly-respected magazines which can afford better lawyers than ours. As the passage added nothing to the narrative flow of this work, we, the editors, have decided to omit it rather than to risk any trouble.]
"But why should I doubt him," thought Susan. "Our life together with our children is perfect." Before they were born, and when Aaron was an infant, it was hard. Charles was still in school, getting his MBA, and they had to live in an apartment, in the city. "But since then," Susan continued to reflect, "Charles has always made sure that his family never lived anywhere near any black or "Spanish" people."
Susan heard a noise. She glanced out the window and crinkled her nose at the latest interruption to her thoughts. A battered pick-up truck was turning and pulling into the driveway. "Oh!" she exclaimed. She rose in alarm and considered waking Charles. The truck backed out into the street, and drove away noisily in the opposite direction from which it had come. Jennifer ran into the room. She rushed into Susan's arms. "Don't worry, dear, it's gone now," said Susan, brushing back Jennifer's hair and kissing Jennifer's forehead through the tears, all the tears that they both shared, together.
"But it was a pick-up truck, and so muddy," sobbed Jennifer. Susan felt powerless and violated. She hadn't felt so powerless and violated since her parents had tried to buy her affection by buying her whatever she asked for, but she knew that now she had to be strong for her family's sake. She spoke soothingly to Jennifer, and slowly stroked her long yellow hair and calmed her convulsive weeping, despite the turmoil she felt inside of herself, and the knowledge of the perils of a dangerous and hostile world without.
"Goddamn son of a goddamn bitch, goddamn it!" thought Billy as he made a Y turn in his truck with the help of somebody¹s driveway. The detour had thrown him off the usual road and into a brand-new development in what used to be old Otto's farm. Otto might have been cranky, but he sold some of the best hay around, before his house was struck by lightning and burned, taking Otto, probably passed out drunk, as usual, to a fiery demise. Billy could never figure out what kind of logic dictated the layout of the streets in the new planned communities which were taking over the valley. He had watched them spread from his little farm on the hillside for the past 20 years. They seemed orderly from that vantage point, but Billy discovered the hard way that entering one for a short cut guaranteed confusion and disorientation. He avoided them, when possible. He missed Otto, his bourbon, and his hay.
Billy wasn't in the best of moods to begin with. He was running low on grain, and had hoped to get to the feed store as soon as it opened. Some of his hay had gotten wet due to a new leak in the barn roof that developed in the last storm. There was so much rain that it had quickly pooled and seeped through cracks in the plastic which was supposed to keep the hay protected. It was getting more difficult to find a farmer with a steady hay supply, as they were ruined by taxes and sold off their land to developers. Billy hated paying the inflated feed store prices, but knew that he had no choice today. "Why did Otto have to get burned to death, why didn't lightning hit one of these developments?" thought Billy. He immediately realized that he was getting as cross as Otto, and took it back.
Billy drove back out to the road using dead reckoning and somehow ended up on the other side of the detour. A one-lane bridge had been closed for widening. The new one would be able to accommodate all the traffic from the development, which included no businesses in walking distance of its residents, not even a convenience store or a pizza parlor. Billy considered moving, as he did, it seemed, whenever he left his farm these days. He had nowhere to go, however. He had always lived there. He inherited the place after his mother died. The developers kept coming by and offering to buy it, but the money was only enough to by a development house, and what was the point of moving to one of those? The cows couldn't live there. The dog couldn't restrain himself to a quarter acre and would probably ruin the neighbors' flowers. There was no mortgage on his old farm house, he could still pay the taxes, and would hold on until he couldn¹t. Maybe another five years, he thought, as he pulled in front of the feed store. He had been trying to find something on the radio that would come in clearly. He only found light hits and jazz. He was glad to turn it off and get out of the truck.
Aaron, Thomas, and Jennifer were eating breakfast while Susan checked the grocery list she had prepared the night before. It was getting so hard to make the right choices. She was weaning Charles off red meat, but he was getting tired of repetitious chicken and fish recipes. The children all had their various respective food allergies. Susan would have to check all the labels carefully while at the store to make sure that the manufactures had not added some new toxin since the last purchase of their products, an ingredient that would cause an allergic reaction and necessitate another panicked ambulance ride to the hospital. She knew that she had to protect her family from what hazards she could.
"Thomas, have you taken your allergy pills?" she asked gently. "Ritalin after breakfast," she reminded Aaron. "Will you promise to do all of your stretching and breathing exercises after your shots?" she inquired of Jennifer. The children all promptly responded in the affirmative, after making sure that they had swallowed their mouthfuls of nourishing breakfast, so that they would not speak with their mouths full. "Don't forget to bring all of your helmets and padding with you today," added Susan. "Of course not, Mother," they answered in unison. With pride Susan thought, "They really are all Harvard material, each and every one of them."
Billy left the feed store and drove the diner to meet Yancey the farrier for their Saturday morning breakfast. The truck was still hesitating during acceleration, and Billy was nearly rear-ended by a mini-van as he pulled out. The van driver honked. Billy waved. The van driver flashed his lights repeatedly before passing Billy and flipping him off. Billy messed around with the radio dial until he pulled parked in front of the diner. He climbed in back, over the grain bags and hay bales, to find a bottle of dry gas, which he poured into the gas tank.
On the way into the diner, he met, on their way out, Becky and her little brother Doug. "Hi," said Billy. Becky had been his best friend since they were in the second grade, when she had beaten up the boy who had bloodied Billy's nose in a fight. She had kicked him to the ground and kicked him in the head again and again. The recess monitors had to pull her off. She was picked on by the other kids, too, because of her brother, and kept fighting. She was expelled from school in 11th grade. The boy she had beaten up in Billy's defense had grown up to be the sheriff. "Morning," said Becky, "you're kind of late today." "A little, you know how it is," answered Billy. "You didn't have another one of your nightmares again, did you?" asked Becky, only half kidding. "Nothing serious," Billy replied, "How are you today, Doug?" Doug smiled and pointed to his shirt, which was covered with syrup and cream cheese. He was retarded, and always made a mess with his food. He was good with animals, and even though he never said a word to anybody, he seemed to be able to talk to them, maybe because he was always so dirty and ready to give cows and horses and dogs treats. His presence especially calmed horses, even better than a goat's. "I have to get to work, see you later," said Becky, as she and Doug went to her car. "OK," answered Billy, waving goodbye to Doug, who again pointed to the front of his shirt.
Billy went into the diner and sat down at a table with Yancey. "How you been?" Yancey asked, "I thought you weren't coming and already ordered for myself." "Morning," replied Billy, "just running late." "Late night?" asked Yancey, "Well, you wouldn¹t believe what happened this week. You know Gloria over at Hillside Farms? She called me up saying that they needed a shoe tacked on right away. I went over there and it turned out the horses were all fine, it was Gloria who was looking for some tacking. That blew the whole Monday schedule. I was supposed to be at Ingrid's at two, but didn't make it until four. Her husband, The Wallet, was already there. She sent him on an errand and really took it out on me. And then on Wednesday" Billy ordered and ate his breakfast while he listened. Yancey had the same stories every Saturday morning. He never tired of telling them. Billy looked forward to them, and all the associated farm gossip. Billy wondered how Yancey found the time to shoe any horses. "Did Bagger get anything?" Billy asked. "Four groundhogs in one day," Yancey answered. "The last one almost got away. One of the crazy DQs saw what was going on and ran over with a stake to break it up. The groundhog attacked her and she had to beat it over the head until Bagger could finish it off. That little dog really wanted blood last week." "He¹s a piece of work all right," said Billy, reflectively.
[Ed.'s note: DQ apparently refers to a "Dressage Queen," not a "Dairy Queen."]
Susan was driving the children to soccer practice when one of them began screaming from the back seat. It was Thomas. She nearly lost control of the speeding SUV in alarm. All the children were screaming by the time she could pull off the highway into a parking lot. "What is it, what¹s wrong?" she asked, turning, once the vehicle was stopped. The children kept screaming and were gesturing wildly through their seat and shoulder restraints. "Somebody tell me what¹s wrong," asked Susan, trying to keep the panic from revealing itself in her tone. "Thomas, what is it?" Aaron, the bravest of them all, answered, with difficulty, "A tick. On Thomas." Susan looked at Thomas carefully. There was a tick on Thomas, crawling upwards, towards his face, on his left shirt sleeve. Susan began to scream. The children joined her, louder this time. "Everybody out!" Susan shouted, unbuckling her seat belt. Thomas, Aaron and Jennifer unharnessed themselves and piled out of the SUV, Thomas on one side, Aaron and Jennifer on the other. Thomas, howling, slapped the tick off his sleeve with Susan's help, and began slapping the rest of himself. Jennifer and Aaron frantically did the same, while jumping up and down. Then Jennifer and Aaron suddenly stopped making any noise or motion at all. Susan and Thomas noticed this a moment later, and stood still. Susan began to feel ill and turned her attention from Thomas to see what had happened on the other, newly vulnerable, side of the vehicle. Susan was horrified to see that Aaron and Jennifer were confronted by an obvious mental defective covered in filth. He was holding out a sugar packet. A skinny woman in a flannel shirt and jeans grabbed his shoulder and asked, "What are you doing, Doug? Let's go." She said to Susan, "Sorry about that, he wanders off sometimes you know." Susan tried to smile but could say nothing. The children all stood silently in place as if stunned, and stared. The woman led the Doug creature away. It turned around, pointed to the mess on the front of its shirt, and again held out a sugar packet. Susan herded the children back into the SUV, asked them to buckle up (they did), and drove out of the parking lot as quickly as was safely possible. Nobody said anything. Susan noticed that her hands were shaking. She held on to the steering wheel as hard as she could and signaled well in advance of all the turns as she continued to drive the children to practice. She and the children avoided looking at the deer carcasses littering the sides of the highway.
Billy said, "Bye, see you next Saturday," to Yancey, who had another busy day ahead, and began the drive back to his farm. He turned the radio dial, searching for something that would come in clearly. He stopped at the last light before his turn-off from the highway. He glanced over at the SUV stopped beside his truck. A little blonde-haired girl with bangs was staring at him from the back seat. He looked back at the light. He began to feel uncomfortable. He turned again. The girl was still staring at him. He waved to her as the light turned green, and drove home. Late in the afternoon, when he was coming down the ladder after fixing the leak in the barn roof, he saw the sheriff¹s car pulling up the driveway. "Hi, sheriff," he said, approaching the car. "Hey, Billy, what's new?" the sheriff asked. "The patch on the barn roof and that's about it," Billy answered. "Well," began the sheriff slowly, "I got a call today about somebody with your plate number. Have you been anywhere?" "To the feed store, and the diner, to meet Yancey, this morning. That's it," Billy answered, "Why?" "Apparently there's another child molester on the loose and he's driving your truck," the sheriff explained. "What?" exclaimed Billy. "Relax," said the sheriff, "I just have to follow up on these complaints. We both know that the only maniac in town is Yancey. Honestly, Billy, just be more careful. There are a lot of new people around, you know." Billy nodded, although he didn't exactly follow what the sheriff was saying. "I've got to go. You going to see Becky anytime soon?" the sheriff asked. "She's coming over with Doug tonight to watch a movie," Billy replied. The sheriff got in to his car, and said out the window, "Well, tell her I say hi." "Will do," said Billy to the sheriff as he drove off. Billy's dog had run up to see who had arrived and was standing in the driveway beside him. "What was that all about?" Billy asked him. The dog looked at Billy, back at the sheriff's car as it turned into the street and headed towards town, and didn't say anything.