Jonathan Starke – There’s nothing out there

Jonathan Starke is a former bodybuilder and boxer. He’s ventured to sixty countries, harvested seaweed in Ireland, given free hugs in Spain, and flipped pancakes in Denmark. He loves riding trains and wondering about the lives unfolding outside the window.


THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE

By Jonathan Starke

Evan was going to the bathroom under the cover of a thick oak. Clouds crossed in front of the moon. His father called to him to hurry up.

            “Where’s the toilet paper?” Evan said.

            Holter stood in the creek. He moved his creek pole from one hand to the other. It was thicker than a fishing pole. Made of lead piping, it looked more like a lightning rod with a thick wire running from its end. “You’ve got plenty of leaves at your feet.”

            “I want real toilet paper.”

            “If you wanna be out here, it’s what you’ve gotta do.”

            Evan tried with the leaves, then yanked his pants up and walked from behind the tree. He stepped with his feet wide apart and tugged the belt loops of his jeans. “I need to go home,” Evan said.

            Holter looked over his shoulder. “I thought you wanted to spend some time out here with me.”

            “I did,” Evan said. Holter dropped his hands. Half the rod sank into the dim water. “I do.”

            “You don’t,” Holter said. “You really don’t.” Holter shook his head as he stepped out of the stream and looked down at his mud-covered boots.

            “I do,” Evan said. He ran up to Holter and grabbed hold of his forearm.

            Holter shook him off. He threw the pole to the ground, then got down on his knees and started taking it apart.

Evan walked up and touched him on the shoulder. Holter pulled him into a hug.

            “You’re not mad?” Evan said.

            “Not at you.”

            “Can we go home?”

            “Sure. Why don’t you wind the wire?”

            Evan took the wire and tried to curl it against the ground.

            “No, not like that. Wind it around your wrist,” Holter said. He put one end of the wire on Evan’s palm and pushed his fingers over it into a fist. “Use your other hand to wrap it around your knuckles. Have you ever seen brass knuckles?”

            “No,” Evan said.

            “Of course you haven’t,” Holter said. He got back to his knees and put the pieces of his creek pole into a small duffel bag along with a plastic bait container.

            “How long do I have to do it?” Evan asked.

            “Until it’s finished.” Holter set the duffel bag in the grass and waded back and forth in the creek. He watched Evan spin the wire around his knuckles.

            “I did it,” Evan said. He held up his fist with the bronze wire strung around.

            “Way to work,” Holter said.

Soon they were retracing their path through the woods. A few hundred yards from the clearing, something moved off the path. Holter held Evan back at the chest.

            “What is it?” Evan asked.

            “I don’t know.” Holter pointed his flashlight toward the sound. He was quiet in setting the duffel bag in the grass.

            “What do you think?” Evan asked, and started walking along the path of light toward the noise.

            “Shush,” Holter said. He took hold of Evan’s shirt collar and jerked him so he fell down. The flashlight’s beam shook. “Stay down there, and be quiet.” Evan pulled his knees into his chest.

            Holter continued forward. Something moved behind the tree. Holter circled.

            “What is it?” Evan asked. “Can you see?”

            “Shush, god dammit.” When Holter got to the far side of the tree, he saw a fox with its front legs caught in a steel trap. The fox perked his head up. He had been gnawing at his left leg just above the knee. So much blood had run down from the chewing wound that the leg was a true red, made more pure and shiny by the triangle of light. Holter turned and almost knocked Evan over. “Jesus,” Holter said.

            “Dad, what is it? A stray?”

            “Get on the damn trail. What did I tell you?” Holter didn’t wait for Evan to move. He grabbed him by the arm and pulled him. “What did I say? You stay on the trail. I’ll take care of this.”

            “What are you gonna do?”

            “Just get down there.”

            Evan kicked at the trail as he walked away. Holter set the flashlight on the ground next to the duffel bag. Its beam created thick, pointed shadows off the blades of grass. Holter reached into the duffel bag and pulled out the pieces of pipe and assembled the creek rod halfway. Then he took the flashlight in one hand and the rod in the other and walked back to the tree.

            “Hey there, boy,” he said to the fox. The fox looked up. He was on his belly now and breathing heavily. The fox had only gotten partway through one leg when he started on the other. Holter stepped within a few feet. “It’s okay. It’s all right,” he said. “I can make it all right.”

            The fox didn’t flinch at Holter being so close. Holter set the flashlight on the ground and angled it toward the tree. Then he offered the back of his hand. The fox sniffed at it, then turned his head away.

            “It’s okay, boy,” Holter said. He moved closer, got down on a knee. “It’s okay, we’ll make this quick.” Holter slipped the rod into place at the fox’s throat. The fox jerked and got hold of the rod with his jaws. Holter used his free hand against the base of the tree and got to his feet. Then he pulled down hard on the rod, turning the fox on his side, and stuck his boot on the fox’s windpipe. There was a snap—not of the neck, but of the fox’s legs. Holter looked away. He closed his eyes and ground his heel into the fox’s throat. Soon the fox was dead.

            Holter waited with his heel jammed down. Then he lifted his boot and picked the flashlight off the ground.

Back at the trail, Evan was standing close to where Holter came out.

            “You okay?” Holter asked. Evan didn’t answer. “Son?”

            “Yeah,” Evan said.

            Holter unscrewed the piping and put the pieces in the duffel bag. He stood and extended the bag to Evan. “You want to carry this home?”

            “No.”

            Holter nodded. They walked on.

            As they neared the clearing, Evan said, “Did you kill him?”

            “I think you know the answer.”

            Evan was quiet.

            “No other way,” Holter said.

            “Couldn’t you have called the police or a fireman?”

            Holter stopped and took Evan by the arm. “Look, sometimes you have to just take care of things. Maybe if you came out here more you’d understand that.”

            “Mom would have asked for help,” Evan said.

            Holter let go of Evan. “Sure she would. She needs it.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I don’t mean anything.”

            The two of them walked in silence. They crossed the open field west of their house.

            “Why do you talk like that?” Evan asked.

            “Like what?”

            “The way you do about her.”

            “You’re too young to understand. I just hope you learned something about what you saw back there.”

            Evan stopped. “I didn’t see you do anything.”

            Holter laughed. “I bet you didn’t. You look like your mother when you lie.”

            Evan turned from Holter and went off the trail. He picked up a short, knotted stick and stabbed at the ground. “I didn’t,” Evan said.

            “We need to keep moving.”

            Evan tilted his head. “Is she going to be mad?”

            Holter paused. “Not at you.”

            “Are we in trouble?”

            “You’re not in trouble. Just don’t talk about this.”

            “Okay, I’ll try.”

“I’ve got a headache.”

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

            “Well, don’t be. Sometimes it’s all hard to deal with.”

            “I’m sorry.”

“It’s just this headache. This one spot in my right temple. Can you see it?” Holter pointed the flashlight at his head like a gun.

            “What?”

            “You don’t see any veins popping out or muscles twitching?”

            Evan laughed.

            They walked up the gravel drive. Kara, Holter’s wife, was a silhouette against the curtain of their upstairs bedroom window. She was talking on the phone. Holter quit walking, made a fist and ground his knuckles up and down his hip.

            “I don’t want to go in,” Evan said.

            Holter took a big breath.

            “Let’s go back,” Evan said. “We can fish some more. I wanna fish.”

            “You said you wanted to come home, so we’re home,” Holter said.

            The silhouette moved from the window. Evan ran up the driveway into the house.

            When Holter walked through the door, he tossed the duffel bag into the corner and took off his boots. Then he went to the hallway bathroom and scrubbed clean his knuckles and fingers.

Later he found Kara in the kitchen making sandwiches. When he reached for her, she scooted away.

            “This isn’t for you,” she said.

            “I wasn’t after it. But I didn’t figure,” Holter said.

            “You didn’t feed him, did you?” Kara spread dark raspberry jam over a piece of bread.

            Holter moved to the window over the sink. Kara kept her body half-turned from him.

            “Okay,” Holter said. “If you wanna be like that.” He moved the metal faucet back and forth.

            “It was my night,” Kara said.

            Holter turned the water on and off. “Well, maybe he’s tired of watching you read your magazines. Or hearing you sneak phone calls to Charlie Futch.”

“Oh, stop it,” Kara said.

“What is it, phone sex?”

            Kara looked at Holter. “Jesus Christ,” she said. “Jesus.” She put her hand out, the one that wasn’t holding the knife, and waved Holter out of the room.

            “All right,” he said.

            “You don’t say things like that,” Kara said. “You just don’t.”

            Holter went into the living room and sat on the couch. He squeezed the couch fabric and released, over and over. Then went upstairs into the bathroom where Evan was taking a shower. Holter put the toilet lid down and sat on it. His hands were shaking.

“You need any help in there?”

            “No,” Evan said.

            “You sure I can’t do anything?”

            “Dad.”

            “Okay.”

            “I’m doing the conditioner next,” Evan said.

            “Your mother have you doing that now?”

            Evan pulled the shower curtain aside. White foam and bubbles slid off his head and down his face. “For a long time now,” Evan said.

            “Right,” Holter said. He put his hand to his brow and covered his eyes. He squeezed his temples.

            “Your headache?”

            “It’s not gone.”

            “Mom just has me chew on these purple dinosaurs when I get a headache,” Evan said, then pulled the curtain back.

“Evan, do you understand why I had to kill him?” Holter waited. Nothing. He stood and took the shower curtain between his fingers. Then he let go and sat down again. “Just answer, will you? Do you get why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe,” Evan said.

“Remember how you asked me to call the police or the paramedics?”

“Fireman,” Evan corrected.

“Right. Why do you think I didn’t call them?”

“Because you wanted to do it yourself?”

“Wanted? Jesus, no. Where do you come up with this stuff? I didn’t want to do it at all. Do you understand that? I didn’t want to do it.”

“Okay,” Evan said.

Holter shook his head. “Look, sometimes you have to do things you don’t wanna. The fox was in pain in that trap. Did you see him in pain?”

“Yeah.”

“In pain?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, tell me that. Exactly that.”

“I saw him in pain.”

“Good, okay. Sometimes when we see something like that we have to make a decision. He would have suffered longer. I never wanted you to see me do something like that. You have to do a lot of things you don’t want in this world, sometimes real bad for good, and sometimes real bad for bad. Do you understand?”

Evan didn’t answer. Holter stood and yanked the shower curtain. Evan jumped back against the wall. He turned away from Holter. The spray from the shower dribbled between them. Holter opened his mouth to say something. Then he closed the curtain and shook his head.

Holter went downstairs to the kitchen. There were two sandwiches on a plate. Kara had wrapped them in plastic.

            “They still aren’t for you,” Kara said. She appeared from the living room with a glass of water. She pitched the water in the sink and set down the glass.

            “I guess one can hope,” Holter said.

            Kara went over to Holter. She reached around him and took the plate and set it farther on down the counter. “Don’t want you to be tempted,” she said.

“What’s he doing calling you all times of the night?” Holter asked, not looking at Kara. “The whole ‘we work together’ excuse doesn’t fly.”

“People forget things, copy the wrong documents, misplace files. What do you want me to say?”

“There’s no good explanation for the phone calls. I’m not stupid. I let it go for a while.”

“I suppose you want to have this out,” she said

“Charlie Futch, the little prick.”

“Well, what did you expect?” Kara picked up her empty glass and filled it halfway from the tap. She walked to the kitchen table, keeping a good distance.

“Some patience. Respect. I didn’t picture being with someone who would do this. Could do this.”

“Spread your wings, little angel,” Kara said.

Holter made his hand into a fist and ground his knuckles into his hip. “I’ll do something about this,” he said.
            “Don’t talk like that. You have crazy expectations that nobody could meet. You forced me to act, so I did, and now you’re pissed about it.”

Holter opened and closed his hand. “I wouldn’t have done that. I never did that.”

“We’re not the same person.” Kara took a drink and moved closer. “Look, just calm down.”

“Don’t tell me what to do. I’m not your child.” He stared out the window.

“Look at you. Do you even see what you’re doing?”

“Shut up,” he said.

“Quiet, for god’s sake. I don’t want him to hear you.”

“I don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a fuck!” Holter was shaking.

“Do you see what you’re doing now? You’re nuts. You’re crazy. Your face and hands have gone totally nuts. Do you even know you do this?”

“Shut up, I said.” Holter moved toward Kara, and she stepped back.

“He’s going to hear you, keep your voice down.”

“Stop telling me that.”

Kara had nowhere to go. The two of them were a foot apart, and she was backed against the wall.

            “This crazy behavior, you do it to him too. I’ve seen you. You do it to him, and he doesn’t know how to react.” She had the glass of water in front of her like she could put him out with it.

Holter was red in the face. He moved a step toward Kara, and she cocked her hand back with the glass. Some of the water spilled down her fingers. Holter stopped. He opened and closed his hands. Then he thought better of it and stormed off. He picked up his duffel bag and went outside to his truck.

 

Hours went by. The wind picked up in the late night. It whistled through the tall grass in the field near the house, joined by the sound of Holter’s truck door slamming upon his return. Holter walked into the house. He set the duffel bag in the corner and took off his boots. Then he went upstairs to the bedroom he shared with his wife and sat on the edge of the bed. His lower back touched Kara at the hip.

“You’re awake,” Holter said.

“Yes,” Kara said.

            “I care about you,” Holter said.

            “I know.”

            “It’s time we did something about this.”

            “I know.”

            “Did you get Evan to bed?”

            “I did.”

            “Do you think he heard me tonight?”

            “I don’t know. I didn’t want to ask.”

            “All right,” Holter said. “Do you think he’s sleeping now?”

            “Yes, I think so.”

            “Good. What about the sandwich? What’d he do with it?”

“He ate it, what else?”

“Did he ask where I was?”

            “We should probably talk about something else.”

“I don’t know what would change things,” Holter said.

            “I don’t either. Maybe it’s time for, well, maybe it’s—”      

“There’s something I need to tell you,” Holter interrupted.

            “Okay,” Kara said.

Holter covered his mouth. He spoke through his fingers. “I spent some time sitting in the pickup. I thought about going down to Charlie Futch’s house and beating him to death.” Kara was silent. “You know, I could see how it happened. Maybe you don’t want to hear. Is this too much for you? Will it be?”

Kara didn’t respond for a while. She didn’t move. “No,” she finally said.

“Okay.” Holter paused. He was almost stoic. “I pull up to his house. I’ve got my creek rod. I only use enough to make half a rod. I get out of the truck. There’s a crooked path up to the door, the kind you always wanted, lined with brick on either side, pebbles down the middle. The kind Evan would probably pick up and throw at passing cars passing if he was the rambunctious type. If he was more like me. So I walk over the pebbles, and it’s really familiar. Serene. It feels a lot like the creek bottom without the water. Electric. I walk up to the cedar door and kick it in. My boot leaves a scuff.

“I find his bedroom right away. There’s no light in there. I figure him for a heavy sleeper. When I get in the room, I flip on the light. He opens his eyes and tries to roll out of bed, but I catch him and belt him on the jaw. He goes out. I drag him into the living room and tie his legs together with some cables and cords I yank from the wall. I knot the cords around his ankles and tether it to a piano leg. He has a small piano in the living room, of all things. I go through his drawers and cupboards and medicine cabinet. He could stock a pharmacy with all the pills. I read some of the labels. He’s dying, Kara. He was dying anyway.”

Holter paused, thinking Kara might say something. He tried to listen real close to catch her breathing, but his pulse was pounding too loud in his ears.

“When he finally comes to, I don’t know if he recognizes me. You can’t always tell that from the eyes. He only knows what’s coming, and I take the half creek rod and settle it under his throat. He tries to get loose—no luck. I have to brace myself and turn him on his side. Then I step on his windpipe with my boot. I hear it shatter. I feel the pop. The kind of crushing sound you wouldn’t ever wanna hear.”

Silence for minutes. Kara lay still. Holter stared out the window.

“It’s an awful story,” Kara finally said. “I don’t want it to be true. I pray it isn’t.”

Holter didn’t respond.

Kara made a noise in her throat.

“We need help,” Holter said.

After a long pause, Kara said, “I can’t live like this anymore. I need to know where you’ve gone, where you’ve been all these years. The other you, the old you. I need to believe you can bring him back. I don’t want to believe he’s gone forever. I can’t believe that yet.”

“I’ll get better,” he said. “Isn’t that what time is for?”

Holter rubbed his eyes. Kara’s face was still buried in the sheets. She reached out and gripped Holter’s wrist. She left her hand there for a long time. And for a long time there was silence. Then Kara turned over to look at Holter for the first time that night. Her eyes puffy and red. “I have a question,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.

“What you told me, what you said you saw and did tonight that I can only believe was a fever dream, do you figure it really changed anything? Did it fix whatever needed fixing? Will the sun come up tomorrow and be a different color because of this?”

Holter was quiet for a while. Then he said, “I guess I wouldn’t bet on it,” and looked down at Kara holding his wrist. The veins on the back of her hand were thick and dark blue. Holter looked away. “I think I heard something in the hall,” he said.

“There’s nothing out there,” she said.

“I heard the boy.”

“You didn’t hear a thing.”

“I’m sure I did,” he said and pulled away. “I’m sure I did, and I’m going to go see about it.”

But Holter didn’t move. Neither of them did. They stayed unmoved in that room, close enough to touch, lost in the slight hum that comes with dark and quiet.

 

 

 

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