June awakens to an echo. The farmhouse and surrounding woods are swathed in darkness punctured only by pinhole stars. What was that sound? It might have been a dream, or the house settling, or a loon in the swamp beyond the woods. The loons scream like women. Their screams shiver and die on the wind. What if someone were dying out there? The sheet has twisted around her legs, and when she peels it from her nightgown, static sparks against her skin. What if someone were dying, and she just pulled her covers over her head?
When June was ten, she stood on an overturned barrel in the woods and proclaimed herself king. The barrel splintered. June’s foot plunged through, soaking her leg in greasy rainwater. She skirted the garden where her mother was sweet-talking the tomato plants that never bore fruit. Trailing rainwater, she ran upstairs to her bedroom and burrowed under the covers, breathing in and breathing out. As her alarm faded, the familiar chill of shame crept in. She confessed ten minutes later.
“It’s my fault,” June’s mother said as the doctor administered a tetanus shot. “I didn’t think to warn you about standing on rotten barrels in the woods.”
Now that June is thirteen, she no longer plays in the woods surrounding the farm that is no longer a farm. At the end of the long dirt driveway there are two granite pillars that once held a gate, but there is no gate. There is a pasture, but there are no horses. There is a garden but there are no tomatoes. There is a doghouse, but there is no dog. There are the chickens, however: four Bantam hens and a rooster too puzzled to fertilize them.
June doesn’t mind that there are no eggs. The chickens sleep in her lap like cats. Her favorite hen, Peep, is pure white with feather dusters bursting from her heels. When June’s school bus stops between the granite pillars, Peep shoots from the forsythia bush and up the long driveway as June’s classmates cheer her on.
Every evening at sunset, the chickens file out of the bush and into the shed. June drops the latch and presses her ear to the door, listening to their quiet rustling. Every morning, she tidies their sawdust nests and checks for eggs. There are never eggs.
June’s bedroom window overlooks the shed backed by the woods where she once was king. Headlights burn through the trees as cars pass over the hill. She holds her breath, willing the lights to fade. But what if they turned and bore down on her? One second, she would be safe in bed, and the next, the headlights might turn down the long driveway, casting the farm in a milky glow—only to cut off below her window. Then, in the expectant darkness and the silence of the farm that is no longer a farm, someone might murder her entire family.
What was that sound? It could have been the loon’s scream. Or a door slam. Or a bootfall on the porch steps. June leans out the window and holds her breath. She can just make out the driveway below, and the shed where the chickens are roosting. In the raw silence, the echo fades from her memory until she can’t be certain she heard it at all. She turns her pillow and rests her cheek against the cool side.
But what if the murderer knows there’s a farmhouse at the end of the long driveway? What if he knows that June’s father collects antiques, and that they don’t have a dog, only a shed full of chickens? He might cut the engine between the granite pillars that once held a gate. He might drape a towel over his shoulder and rest a shotgun against the towel. He might stroll down the long driveway, his work boots jangling in the dark, all the way to the end where the house creaks in its sleep.
What’s that sound? A loon’s scream. A door slam. A bootfall on the porch steps. She should wake her parents. The murderer would find their bedroom first, and if he wrapped his shotgun in the towel, they would die in silence.
When she was small and had woken in the night, she had tiptoed downstairs to her parents’ room. She had forced herself to walk slowly because Mrs. M the librarian had not been careful and had slipped down the stairs in the middle of the night. Mr. M told the papers he’d awoken to the sound of her neck cracking like a gunshot.
June had tiptoed through the hallway, guided by her father’s snores. She had opened her parents’ door a sliver and whispered, Mommy, panic lifting the end of her voice. The snores had cut off, and her father’s Big Bad Wolf growl had rumbled from the cave of the bedroom: What is it?
I heard a noise. Once she had pushed her fears through her parents’ door, she could breathe again. If they were murdered in the night, at least it wouldn’t be her fault.
Her mother had understood, because she, too, worried about murderers and rain barrels and steep staircases. She had taken June’s hand and led her back to her bedroom. It’s natural to worry, her mother had explained as she tucked June into bed. Our great-great-great-great grandmothers worried at bedtime because they had to be ready to run from mammoths. Their hearts had pounded just like yours, her mother had said, pressing her palm just above June’s heart. The mammoths died long ago, but the fear settled deep into our bones.
When June turned thirteen and was no longer a little girl, her mother said it was time she learned to comfort herself. She gave June the string of worry beads she had inherited from her own mother. June keeps them on the bedpost.
She unloops the beads from the post and slides them along the string one at a time, repeating her mother’s words like a litany, Go to bed, go to bed little one. Nothing bad will happen to us. Our door is locked. The beads warm in her fingers. She can just make out the driveway below and the shed where the chickens are roosting. Headlights burn through the trees. She holds her breath, willing the lights to fade. But what if the murderer has cut the engine at the empty gate? What if his work boots jangle in the driveway? What if someone really is screaming in the swamp? In Cleveland a man kept three women chained in his bedroom. His neighbors heard the women screaming, but told themselves it was the wind. Those women got into a stranger’s car, June’s mother had said, and turned off the news. You know better.
But what’s that sound? A loon. A dog. The old house shifting. June can just make out the shed where the chickens are roosting. Headlights burn through the trees. She slides the worry beads along the string. Static sparks against her skin as she pulls back the sheets. She opens her door inch by inch, just enough to squeeze through, and tiptoes down the hallway.
In Florida, a little girl had whispered through her parents’ door, I heard a noise. Her mother had understood, because she, too, heard noises in the night. The doors were locked, but there was a snapping, scraping just outside, like a huge animal dragging something along the ground. Her mother pulled back the curtain bit by bit, just enough to peek through. In the milky glow of the porch light, the driveway was caving in. They made it across the street just in time to watch the ground devour their house from garage to swimming pool. What if the little girl had just pulled the covers over her head? June’s mother had stroked her hair and said, We don’t have sinkholes in Connecticut.
June holds her breath at the top of the stairs. The only sounds are the rumble of her father’s snores and the gutteral tick of the grandfather clock. The beads grind against her finger bones. If the little girl had not woken her parents, they all would have skated into the earth, still tucked in their beds. The house would have folded up around them, and it would have been her fault.
The responsibility is dizzying. June squeezes her eyes closed and her head aches from the strain of listening. She longs to push her fears through her parents’ door, pass on the responsibility so she can breathe again. But she is thirteen, and no longer a little girl. She has to learn to comfort herself. She breathes in, and breathes out. She slides a bead along the string. There is no murderer. She slides a bead along the string. There is no woman screaming. She slides a bead along the string. There are no sinkholes in Connecticut. She slides a bead along the string. She turns at the top of the stairs, carefully, so she does not fall.
She tiptoes back into her bedroom and pulls her covers over her head. She closes her eyes and relaxes one muscle at a time, starting with her toes, moving up to her knees and then her stomach and wrists and elbows and shoulders and neck and eyelids, until she is sinking into the bed, down through the springs, and down, down through the creaking floorboards, and deeper to the foundation stones that groan as the house settles in its sleep.
The sound shivers on the wind again, but it’s just the loon. Nothing bad will happen, she tells herself, in her mother’s soothing voice. Go to bed, go to bed little one. Nothing bad will happen to us. Our door is locked.
The shed is latched, but the sawdust is strewn with white feathers tipped in red. The chickens had slept in her lap like cats. June’s mother says there is nothing she could have done once the weasel got in, but June knows the truth.
She finds the barrel in the woods where she once was king. Greasy rainwater glistens in the hole her foot had plunged through. She drops the worry beads into the hole, and listens. They sink without a sound.
Lara Ehrlich's writing appears or is forthcoming in class River Styx, The Hairpin, and U.S. 1 Worksheets, and she is working on a short story collection entitled News From a Country Never Visited. Lara lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where she is an editor at Boston University.