Artie was only six when Father died. The task of running the farm had fallen to Mother, who had, without blinking, hired the job out to a set of men who were broad-shouldered and loud-talking, and who blocked the doorway to Father’s workshop, which is where the best pencils and glue and shoelaces had always been kept, and where Father’s tools still hung, and where, for just a little while longer, the air would still smell like dog food and wet shoes and hot metal.
Artie was twelve when Mother died, and this time the farm went to Gina, who said she’d had enough of strangers running things around here already and shooed the men out, right behind Mother’s body. In their place came a rotation of high-schoolers whom she invited up to the house for pizza after their shifts, and for whom she wrote college recommendations, and with whose fathers and older brothers she flirted.
In the end, she'd landed a husband this very way, and so, on the evening of the wedding, after Gina was toted away drunk and elated in the passenger seat of an oversized pick-up truck, eighteen-year-old Artie sat on the front porch until the sun went down, watching the sheep moving cautiously through the pasture, and the fireflies beginning to flicker.
He went inside, warmed the casserole that Gina had left him, ate it, washed his plate and fork, hand-dried them the way Mother had always said that he must, and put them back in the antique maple hutch where they belonged.
Then he went upstairs and looked into his parents’ room, with its musty drapes and twin beds, and into Gina’s bright-painted room from the hallway. And when it was late enough, he climbed into the twin bed he’d slept in every night of his life, in the smallest of the house’s three bedrooms. He pulled his quilt up tight under his chin, turned out the light, and waited for his eyes to adjust. But the dark was darker than it had ever been, and tonight it stayed dark and didn’t yield. The house around him held its breath, cold and empty, with only his one body inside it, breathing in and out, afraid of tomorrow.
In the dark, Mother came to him first. Upright in her favorite chair—a fancy chair for a farmhouse, everyone agreed: dark mahogany with carved legs and candy-cane striped silk. The version of Mother who had stung the back of his neck with a ruler if he tracked mud into the house on his boots, or was too slow at his reading, or cried when a fox mauled the chickens. And the other version of Mother, too: the near-skeleton, slumped in a soup-stained nightgown, barking harlot at Gina as she walked past carrying trays of food and baskets of laundry, and hissing retard at Artie when he tiptoed past empty-handed.
Artie thought about the dead. About Mother and the green hill not far from here where she was buried, and Father’s body buried beside her.
Father. Father had taken him fishing. Trusted him to use the toaster. Taught him, allowed him to climb trees. Held out his arms, for Artie to jump.
Maybe a dog, Artie whispered to the dark. A big muddy-pawed shedder, like Father used to have, before Mother said No more, those dogs were soiling her upholstery. He could let a dog come inside the house. Lick the dinner plates. Come upstairs, even. Sleep in his room.
Artie turned over in his bed and looked out the window. Joonie, the last one had been. Artie and Gina had liked riding in the back of Father’s truck with Joonie, and throwing her rubber ball as far as they could.
He sat up and went down the hall to his parents’ old room, and opened his father’s dresser. He pulled a pair of Father’s overalls on over his pajamas, found a flashlight downstairs in the workshop, and went out and across the field to the grassy space behind the barn, where a row of stones marked the line between a thin-mown tractor path and a thicket of wild grasses.
A long line, ending with Joonie. He sat and patted the last stone, and missed Joonie so suddenly it felt like a cannonball hitting his chest, and he wished everything around him weren’t dead.
A square-shouldered shadow sat overlooking, and Artie lifted his flashlight. Up to its ears in grasses sat the old heavy-fendered truck. Artie could still hear it rumble.
He pushed through the grass, tugged at the driver’s-side handle until the rusted hinges moaned open, and climbed in. The seat was still set way back, the way Father had it, and the vinyl seats creaked the same old way. Artie turned off the flashlight and waited for the night noises to pick up where they had left off.
After a day of fishing, at the top of the long road back into the farm, his father’s long, narrow hand had swept across everything Artie could see, from one end of the dashboard to the other, and then reached out the window and patted the roof of the truck.
“These are your fields, you know,” his father had said. “Your land, your sky, Artie. Even the moon belongs to you.”
Artie stretched his legs all the way out into the long, empty space in front of him and tilted his head back against the seat. This truck, sleeping here in the grasses, watching over. Those thick shadows, shifting expectantly in their enclosure. Those fields, pulsing with light. All of these lungs, here together, being alive.
-- Molly Dumbleton’s short fiction has appeared in journals including New England Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Witness, and been honored with First Prize for the Columbia Journal Fiction Award, the Seán Ó Faoláin Story Prize, and the Dromineer Literary Festival Flash Fiction Award; Third Prize for the Bath Flash Fiction Award and Bridport Prize; and Finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award, Smoke Long Quarterly Flash Fiction Award, and others. She is a reader for The Masters Review and a member of the Curatorial Board at Ragdale, and writes and teaches in the Chicago area. Full publications list and other info can be found at www.moliadumbleton.com.