Featured in Colorado Review
Joe and JuneFiction
Published Summer 2018
When June started high school, she passed a note to a different boy every month in homeroom. She refused to be the kind of girl she thought they saw. Meet me outside during lunch, she wrote. Meet me by the music room after the bell rings.
She moved in the exact way she saw her classmates move when she passed them in these hidden corners. Her hands rested on the boys’ shoulders. Her head tilted to the side when their tongues had laced together.
Once Billy Razak met her by the soccer field before he had practice. They stood under the bleachers kissing and he moved his hand up her shirt, under her bra. He pinched her nipple with his calloused fingertips. He was a junior in vocational school and worked with metal all day. June thought of her body as shiny, malleable metal as he touched her, and she hadn’t meant to, but bit down on his lip, making him bleed. He backed away, touching his mouth. He spit out his minty gum by her shoe and said, “You smell like cow shit anyways.”
When June got home from school that day, her father handed her the four-wheeler keys, told her to ride out to the farthest pasture and check on the new calf that had been born that morning while her younger brother Joe started the manure. She sat and started the ATV. It was almost a decade old, and whenever she rode it, she thought the yellow shell would crack and she would tumble off the back with the worn plastic. As she drove to the pasture this time she thought of Billy, how his hands had felt those girlish parts she was proud of most. Now that was over and there wasn’t anything she liked about herself.
She passed the barn and saw Joe walking inside. His steps seemed heavy and concentrated. The gum boots were too big on him, but he knew enough to not complain. She thought of having to pick fieldstone with him the next day. It was the new job their parents had given them that spring. They had to be up at six and out the door by seven. Throughout the three hundred acres, a different section every Saturday, they were to find the stone that had somehow appeared over the year and haul it from the fields.
During the week, Joe had to be up at five, herd the Holsteins into the milking parlor so their father could sleep in until six. June fed the pigs before school, turning off the electric fence and hopping into the pen to divide the food evenly. Every day after school they slipped on their matching gray gum boots and raked cow manure out of the barn and into the spreader. Standing in piles of shit for hours, the smell nauseating, was dreadful, but June hated her life the most those mornings she stood in a T-shirt and shorts, staring across their land, the sun glowing and warming, waiting to pick fieldstone.
The Saturday before, June had pushed the wheelbarrow beside Joe. The air was warmer and drier than normal for a Pennsylvania April, but Joe wore his new blue Future Farmers of America jacket. FFA was an organization that her father had been in as a kid, and now Joe was too. June almost reached out and grabbed the collar as he bent for a stone. She wanted to tell him to stop being ridiculous and take it off. But she watched him closely. He held a small stone in his hand and acted like he had found something peculiar, odd. He studied its grayness, felt the texture with both hands, seemed to wonder about its weight. Finally he placed it in the wheelbarrow.
When it was time to switch positions and he took the handles from her, she told him that what they were doing constituted child labor. June had their mother on her mind. She had always been frail and quiet. She prepared meals and completed paperwork from the moment the day started to when it ended. Her father was quiet in the same way, but he made up for her mother’s physical weakness. He was a tall man and stronger than anyone June had ever known. Once, she had watched her father as he dragged a dead Holstein from the barn. His biceps inflated, his calf muscles bulged with every step. June wondered if he had started to love the work less that day he had moved the dead cow from the barn since he began to drag his own children into the business more, as if they had asked to be a part of it. She wanted to be someone normal. Watch television until noon on the weekends. Practice soccer in the backyard so she could finally make the B team. Invite a friend over and make a slip and slide with the old tarp in the basement.
Joe stared at the pile of stone in the wheelbarrow he would soon have to push. “Running a farm is thankless work,” he said, which, to her, didn’t mean anything.
He didn’t grab the handles. He didn’t move, and June wondered what he was waiting for, but as soon as she stepped forward, walked along the next patch of land, he followed with the wheelbarrow and the same steady steps. They didn’t say another word to each other that morning until the last hour, when Joe finally took off his FFA jacket. His neck and arms were damp from sweat.
“Finally,” June said.
He draped the coat over his arm and kept his head down. “You could have joined,” he said. “I’ve seen girls in the classes. They have jackets too.”
She shook her head and her brother just shrugged, ran his middle finger over the silver teeth on the jacket.
June reached the farthest pasture on the four-wheeler now. She saw a white lump in the grass and the mother Holstein standing to the right of it. The cow’s black eyes were aimed at June. They seemed full of fear.
The idea came to June suddenly and she steered the ATV away from the cow and her calf. She thought about what it would mean for the farm and what it would mean for Joe. But she executed it before thinking about it any longer. She leaned her body to the right, yanked the handles the same way, curled her fingers at the same time, squeezing the clutch. Her body fell to the ground first, the four-wheeler next, landing mostly on her legs.
She felt a snap in her left leg. She turned her head, began vomiting in the grass from the pain. June could hear her name being shouted from a distance, felt the wind and the grass move above and below her body. Propping herself up on her elbows, she stared at the sky, at the clouds that stretched just above the overlapping hills in the distance, and she saw a sliver of blue below the clouds that was the loveliest, brightest blue she had ever seen in the sky at that hour.
Joe stood over her minutes later. His words were swallowed by his heavy breathing, by his own panic. She watched him, brought back from the blue sky, struck by the strength she didn’t know he had that was similar to their father’s. He lifted the ATV from her legs in seconds.
June was in a cast for months, but only out of school for two weeks before she returned on crutches. During those few bedridden weeks she thought constantly of Joe. His pink cheeks and long arms and skinny legs and hidden strength. She thought of him raking the manure by himself and completing all of her chores after his own. Joe with his small blue eyes that could see what she refused to see. She knew he felt just as sorry for her.
He came into her bedroom one night during that first week. She was loopy from the oxycodone and the pain that was still so intense. He winced as she struggled to reposition. She knew as she looked back at him that he knew the truth. She had told her parents she had dodged a fawn that had darted across the field. Joe must had been standing outside the barn, watching as she flipped the four-wheeler on her own, nothing at all in her way.
He moved to her bed and touched his fingers to her hand as if she were an infant with soft, delicate skin. “Why’d you do that, June?” he said.
She looked at the dark colors on the quilt that lay across her body and didn’t answer. He never asked again. He kept all of her secrets safe.
During the springs that followed, June tried to mimic Joe in the field, working silently, finding something special with every stone she plucked from the ground. She learned from her brother like she figured he learned from the FFA classes he sometimes went to throughout middle school and high school. The work, if she was in a certain state of mind, was meditative. She learned to forget about what she wanted, who she wanted to be.
But one Saturday morning when she was eighteen, as she pushed the wheelbarrow, she knew she would have a mental breakdown. It was like she could see it plowing toward her in the wide open field. She was sad, angry, her feelings swarming together like that day years earlier when she had met Billy under the bleachers. She still didn’t know how to handle her feelings, how to put them out into the world. It was the afternoon and the sun felt fierce, burning through her shirt. She squeezed the wooden handles so she could feel her hands sting instead. She stopped the wheelbarrow and hunched over the handles. She took deep breaths, but the warm air ran down her throat, and she began to choke and cough.
Joe turned, a small stone in his hands. “June,” he said, “are you all right?”
Her breathing calmed. She lifted her head to look at her brother. A trickle of sweat ran down his temple. He no longer wore the blue FFA jacket when he picked stone. He didn’t need it as armor, June thought. He knew who he was no matter where he went or what he did.
“I heard them talking. They’re worried. More than usual,” she said.
“About the tractor?”
June nodded. “It cost over a thousand bucks to fix.”
“Dad pumped the infected cow twice this week, had to drain the milk and turn the milk truck away.”
He wiped his brow with his forearm and stared at her, his mouth cracked open. She wondered why he was acting so stupid.
“We’re running out of money,” she said, her voice sharp, low, even though no one else was around. “There’s gonna be nothing left.” She couldn’t stop talking. “What are we gonna do? There’s nothing else they know how to do.”
Joe closed his mouth and June concentrated on the tiny cracks in his lips. He never bothered with ChapStick or Vaseline. He twisted his toe into a stone they had missed. “It feels like a disease, doesn’t it?” he said. “We try to hide it, walking around school, the same outfits every week. Same sneakers since I was fourteen, but everyone knows we got nothing.”
June looked at the black and white Skechers he wore. She remembered the day he got them. A birthday present her parents gave him two months late. He had been so excited he didn’t take them off even when he was in the house. Home from school, he walked through the kitchen before starting his chores, heating up a Hot Pocket, tracking mud across the wooden floors. Now, the shoes had turned a shit brown. They were too small—his toes about to bust through the front.
“But Dad will figure it out,” he said. “I can’t imagine not smelling cow shit every morning anyways.”
They laughed at the same time. The sound of it surprised June as they crumbled beside the wheelbarrow, wiping at their sweat, looking out and into the bright green fields where she knew clumps of stone waited.
June came home from class early. She had gotten several scholarships to go to Keystone College and her second year was almost over. After another two years, she would have an English degree. She would be searching for a job that was the opposite of what her family had done their entire lives.
A white truck sat in the driveway. When she walked closer she saw a blue four-digit number stamped above the handle on the door. There was a label, the same color: Cabot Oil & Gas. She looked up at the house, could see three people sitting at the kitchen table through the window. When she was inside and dropped her book bag in the mudroom, the stranger sitting with her parents looked over and said hello. He was a stocky man, balding, holding a baseball cap with the Cabot Oil & Gas label on the front. Her parents didn’t look away from him.
Joe stood in the living room, leaning against the wall and looking at the back of the man’s head. He was almost as tall as their father now, and his legs looked awkward as one crossed over the other. June leaned against the other wall and whispered, “Who is that?”
Joe held up a finger. “I’m listening.”
The man turned then, stretching his neck so he could see them. “You two can come and sit,” he said. “We encourage a family discussion. That way, no one is left out of the loop.”
Joe looked at June, their faces reflections of each other’s. They had the same long nose, the same freckled face, and their light eyes held the same curiosity. They had always hidden around corners, eavesdropping when they wanted to find something out. When they thought they were officially going broke, Joe had hidden under their parents’ bed one morning when their father went to milk the cows and their mother got breakfast ready in the kitchen. Joe and June knew their routine by heart, and she imagined Joe holding his breath as his chest pressed against the ugly pink carpet, her father undressing for a shower and her mother sitting on the bed, asking questions, getting a discussion in. From hiding under the bed, Joe had learned that an uncle had sold some of his stocks and sent the money to them. They had been running on that for years.
“Is that all right?” the man said now.
Their mother looked smaller than usual, sitting in between the two men. She wore a green wool sweater, clutching the ratty ends of the sleeves, and June noticed that the porcelain flesh on her mother’s neck had turned pink. The color crawled to her cheeks. When she nodded, Joe rushed over and sat beside their father, his knees hitting the bottom of the kitchen table. June sat beside her mother and wondered if the rash was contagious.
“This is Allen,” her father said. “He works for Cabot.”
“What’s he doing here?” Joe said.
“Well,” Allen said, “I’m here because the county has some resources the world could really use right now.”
June imagined gold hidden under the fields where her father spread the cow manure and planted corn. Then she thought of the movie she and Joe had seen when they were in middle school. That Christmas, her parents allowed one gift within means, and Joe and June had asked to be taken to the Dickson City movie theater. They went to the front row and watched with their heads tipped back as a group of men tried to find some hidden treasure in a modern world. On the ride home Joe wondered aloud if someone could really find treasure like that and never have to worry about a thing. June ignored him. She thought the movie was stupid, but her heart rate was high, her blood warm from having done something so normal.
“Your farm, your land, we think it’s sitting on top of natural gas,” Allen said.
“And we have to give you the gas?” June said.
“We pay you to give us the gas. If your parents agree and sign the lease.”
“How much we talking?” Joe asked.
“It’s more complicated than that. You’ll get money once you sign, but when we put in a well, start drilling and find the gas, you’ll get more money.”
“How much do we get when we sign?”
“About a million,” Allen said.
The only sounds were subtle creaks in the wooden floorboards above them. It used to scare Joe and June when they were young, the house talking when they tried to sleep, but her father had explained it one night. Joe and June were in the same bed, their cold toes touching. “The house is so thin,” her father had said as he sat on the edge of the bed. “When the wind blows, the house can’t handle it. That’s all it is. Movement from there, finding a way in here. You can feel a breeze if you lie still enough.”
June had gone back into her own bedroom, and almost every night she lay awake trying to feel the wind move through her body. And that’s what she thought her family was doing as they sat at the table, blinking slow, feeling a breeze much different from the only one they had known.
Sunday was the only day they got to sleep in. June never could, her body’s internal alarm always faithful. But one early December morning she let her eyes stay closed even as she lay awake. The back of her eyelids appeared orange. She knew it was the sun rising outside her window, the white rays moving through her sheer purple curtains. Then there was a blackness, something standing over her. She opened her eyes to Joe in his barn jeans and sweatshirt.
“Can you come with me?”
“Dimock,” he said.
“Why are you going there?”
“Please,” he said. “Just come.”
Joe used the jeep, the family car they’d had since the ’90s, only when June wasn’t using it to drive to class. They got into it now with Joe behind the wheel. The heat barely worked. Every ten minutes it let out a gust of hot air and June shivered in the passenger seat, holding her hands to the vents when it decided to let out a breath.
An hour later, Joe pulled the car onto the side of a dirt road. They had passed only three cars that morning, but he got out and looked both ways four times before he crossed. June stared at her brother from the passenger seat. He bounced on his toes, warm air spilling from his mouth, waving his hand for her to follow.
When she stepped outside, she saw them. In the distance were metal towers stretching taller than the trees beyond the field. There was a dirt road leading to the towers, the land on either side of the road torn up and brown. A few other rutted paths led to the towers, but the towers sat on land that seemed even and smooth and man-made. June could see a silo beyond the mess, a tiny white house with brown shutters.
“What is this?” she asked.
“The gas people came to Dimock before us. This is what they’ll build on the farm if we sign.”
“How do you know?”
“Because this is just what happens. We’re not any different.”
June shrugged but looked away from Joe. “It’s money. Something we’ve never had.”
He turned, heading back to the car.
“And now we’re just gonna drive back home?”
Joe opened the door, paused before he climbed inside, and looked back to her. His lips looked glued together. His jaw was clenched and his eyes were steady. He seemed to be studying her from where he stood, and it felt to June as if he were considering leaving her behind.
Two years after they had signed the gas lease, her father stopped farming. He sold the Holsteins and pigs to the Bakers’ farm on the other side of Forest City. He got rid of his two John Deere tractors along with the Leo manure spreader.
When June came home from work, a copywriting position in Dickson City, her home looked like an oxymoron. There was the white colonial-style farmhouse, the walls so thin and weak that doors closed and floorboards shifted when there was anything but calm weather, its rooms now filled with fancy things. The living room with the cracked yellow walls, the pale crown molding, now featured long leather couches her parents lounged on like leeches in a warm, muddy swamp. A 52 inch flat-screen TV was mounted above a bookshelf in the living room. There were new ceramic dishes in the cabinets. Designer winter jackets hung in the mudroom. Her father had bought himself a green Arctic Cat four-wheeler to use for hunting and parked it in the barn where the manure spreader used to live. And there was a hot tub in the backyard now.
June was the only one who ever used it. She sat in the right rear seat every time so she faced the milking parlor. She would start to daydream in the hot tub and imagine her father there, completing the tasks that used to make up his days. Head to toe in Carhartt gear, the skin on his face leathery from years of sun and work, he herded the cattle inside the milking parlor. In her mind, she would see him do what she had watched him do countless times. When the cows were ahead of him, he would stop, watch their rear ends with mud, dark and dried, and take out a white handkerchief from his pocket and wipe the bottom of his raw nose.
A gas pad was installed at the far end of their field. It was on the last section of land she and Joe had picked fieldstone from, and as she sat in the hot tub, her mind wandering to the past, she was always brought back by the strange noises of the present. Most of the time she heard a steady buzz, but every now and then came louder sounds. Something grinding into the ground. The earth below the hot tub would tremble, and June tried to imagine what the gas guys needed right under her. The gas, she thought, worked its way from the layers of earth to the large tanks on the property her family had signed over.
Before she got out, she would lift her wrinkled hands above the hot water, trace the lines on her left palm, and touch the tops of her fingers as if they were piano keys. She couldn’t believe the sound her fingers made.
They discussed their circumstances as a family only once. This time without Allen. As the gas royalties came in every month, her mother and father said they had created a family plan. Whatever the amount, it would be split among the four of them.
It was a Friday night. They ordered pizza and ate off the new china plates. Her father drank his beer out of a crystal glass that her mother had purchased online. Joe’s legs bounced under the table. June could feel the vibrations through their touching chairs and set her hand on his knee, wanting a return to the calmness she was used to.
Joe touched two fingers to his lips, tapped his mouth. “What does this all mean?”
“What do you mean?” her father said.
“I mean, what are we supposed to do now?”
“You can do whatever you want, Joe. Go back to school, get another degree. Go build a house somewhere.”
Joe shook his head, his entire body stiff. “I’m not going back to school,” he said.
“But it’s important you two work. Have a job,” her mother said. Her hair was down, reaching her shoulders and curled for the first time in years. Every few minutes she put her pointer finger through a curl, circled it along the spiral. She touched the ends now, then pushed the curls behind her shoulders. She looked at their father. “Just because we’re done working doesn’t mean you should be.”
June was perplexed by how young her mother now seemed, but more so by the sound of her confidence, how she offered the sort of advice they had never been given. Her father nodded, took a sip of beer, the foam lining his lips before he licked it off. “You don’t have to act like the money isn’t there, but don’t act like it’s always there.”
Her mother had thrown out that green sweater and all the others like it. Now she wore a blue blouse, the top of her chest exposed, her skin tone the same from her neck to her cheeks. They looked so relaxed. Her father sipped his beer from the crystal glass, and her mother leaned back and watched him, smiling. It seemed as though they would soon slide off their chairs.
“I think I’m going to move out, then,” Joe said. “That would be the normal thing to do, right?”
Her father shrugged. Her mother’s wisdom had run its course and she said nothing. June ate quietly, watching her brother nod slowly to himself. She swallowed all the answers she pretended to have. She knew what she would do. Let the money pile up. Quit her job. Move off the farm, to somewhere far away, maybe.
It was something she never had, a boyfriend, and June didn’t know how to act, how to handle this type of love.
Dave worked for the same company and was a copywriter too. His cubicle sat next to hers. On their first date at the Olive Garden down the street from their office, he told June he was drawn to her simple style. The oversized sweaters she wore to work, a different dark color every day. Her hair straight and damp when she sat down at her desk with her coffee in the morning, but becoming waved and frizzed when it dried.
Eventually she met his family, his friends who all lived in Dickson City. She stayed in the shadows at first, watching everyone talk and move and laugh because June convinced herself that Dave’s attraction was a mistake. One day he would wake up and realize she was nothing but a boring person with a boring life and a boring story. But soon she crept out from the shadows and learned to live in the social world she had avoided since high school. She danced in the bars they went to after work on Friday nights. She bought shots for Dave and his friends. A few times, June took too many of those shots and got sick in the bathroom when no one was watching, popping Tic Tacs into her mouth afterward.
She bought new clothes like her mother had. At twenty-five she wore a miniskirt for the first time, never realizing the perfect shape of her legs when the rest of the world looked at them. She purchased push-up bras and felt silly at first—her chin to her chest— staring at the lotioned lumps. She wore black eyeliner above her lashes. A plush pink on her lips almost always.
After one of their late Friday nights, the black eyeliner smeared on Dave’s cheek when he carried her into his apartment, then threw her onto his bed. June licked her finger and wiped off the makeup. They kissed for ten seconds. She had the habit of counting how long his lips stayed on hers, still curious about the way his flesh felt and always intrigued by his attention. Dave’s hair was long. The same hazelnut color as her father’s and Joe’s. He ran his hand through his hair and propped his elbow on the bed. “You know,” he said. “I still can’t figure you out.”
June stayed quiet.
“One day you’re in a big sweatshirt, typing away at your computer like you’re the only one in the office. And tonight you show up looking like a princess. I never know who I’m going to get.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Of course it’s a good thing.”
It was quiet again and her heart felt off beat.
“I love you,” he said.
She said it back.
He rolled over and fell asleep in minutes. June closed her eyes. She saw fieldstone and dairy cows and her childish bedroom that she rarely slept in now that she stayed at Dave’s. She saw her parents watching their expensive television and Joe in the brand-new brick house that he had paid for in cash months before. She wondered what Dave would think when she took him home, showed him their dead farm, their abundant wealth.
June didn’t like being home now with Joe gone. The house was quiet. No slamming doors, no calls from her father to help him bale the hay or herd the cows. Most weekends, she would show up at Joe’s after trying to reach him on his cell. She would sit on the front steps or in the car and wait. She’d give it an hour each time before she gave up and left.
One July weekend, she pulled into his driveway and wondered if he had gone away without telling anyone. The grass had grown so high that a swamp of untamed blades flooded his lawn. But his garage door was open with his red Lamborghini parked inside, and there was another car parked in the driveway. A rusted, green Corolla without a license plate. June didn’t ring the doorbell, but let herself inside.
The kitchen smelled like rotten food and the sink was piled with dishes, crusted with dried ketchup and cheese. When she walked into the living room, calling for Joe, he lay stretched out on the same type of leather couch her parents had bought. He wore only his boxers, a white sheet kicked off him and bundled up at the end of the couch.
He opened his eyes halfway. “June?”
She took the sheet and threw it across him. “Sorry, I thought you’d be up.”
She sat down on the other couch. Joe closed his eyes again. His breath had a steady rhythm that sounded like it would put him back to sleep. There was a pile of clothes on the floor beside the couch, and she smiled, recognizing the blue jeans he’d had for years, stained from the manure raking. Nothing else about the room was familiar. The TV looked different from the one she remembered. Bigger and thinner and sitting on a wooden stand with a glass door. Inside were hundreds of DVDs and PlayStation games. In the corners of the room were Amazon boxes. June opened the nearest one and pulled out some helicopter toy.
“I’ve been trying to contact you. Where’ve you been?”
He opened his eyes fully. She could barely see the blue, the beauty.
“Around,” he said.
She held up the toy. “What is this thing?”
“It’s a drone.”
He sat up slowly. June could see his chest bones—thin and long and about to break through his skin with every breath he took. She remembered in the summer when they were done with their chores and would walk to Shem River. They would cool off in the icy water for hours. One year, Billy Razak and his friends found out about the watering hole. When they showed up in their trucks with their beer and girlfriends, Joe and June went back home before they could ask what they were doing. She wanted to ask Joe now when was the last time he had been outside, but she thought she had heard something. A door close, a toilet flush. She turned her head and leaned back on the arm of the couch, trying to look down the hallway.
“So,” Joe said, leaning over, taking the drone from her and setting it on the table between them. “What did you say you were doing here?”
June forgot about the sounds and faced him. She almost told him her pathetic truth. She felt strange when she slept in her bedroom, knowing he wasn’t in the next room. She felt like a scared child again when the wind danced over the floorboards. On her upper lip, there was an ugly purple sore that had formed weeks ago and hadn’t gone away. Stress is what Dave told her it was from, and June knew he was right. She thought about Joe and their separate lives so much that her body produced external reminders of how awful she felt. And oddly, even though she had Dave, she felt more alone than before. There was always that fear that she would wake to find him gone and she would have to adjust to her old life, which had never seemed appealing. Yet she was surprised when she craved parts of it now.
“Just to see you. Hang out,” June said.
“I’m pretty tired.”
“You go out last night?”
Joe laughed. He shook his head.
“Do you have work today?”
He grabbed the remote, turned on the television. He pressed his lips together, hard, again and again, his nostrils moving at the same time. “I stopped working at the garage,” he told her. “Rob let some people go.”
“Are you going to find something else?”
“I don’t need to work and neither do you.”
Joe’s lips twitched in that unusual way again as he watched the television. June didn’t pay any attention to the channel he had landed on, but thought of her bank account. She checked it every few weeks. Her body felt like it filled with helium afterward. Recently, she had shown Dave and watched him blink, shake his head and laugh. “You can have anything you want,” he had said.
“You probably like working, though,” Joe said when she didn’t respond, when she thought he had forgotten she was there. “You met Dave.”
“What’s the drone for?”
Joe kicked off the sheet she had draped over him. He grabbed his jeans from the pile of clothes and pulled them on. He moved a hand down his face. “I can’t take another fucking question from you, June.”
June flinched. Joe had never spoken to her in that way. She couldn’t remember if she had ever heard him swear. She stared at the strange man now standing and pacing, touching the top of his head, his face. She heard something again, and this time she realized it was coming from upstairs. There was someone walking in the room above them. Someone closing doors and flushing toilets. She could count the number of friends Joe had over the years. There was Austin Snider, who used to buy hay from them, and sometimes he would linger, talking with Joe about FFA classes. There were a few boys Joe had met at the mechanical college he went to—twins who came to the house once. They were polite, saying hello with stiff nods, taking off their baseball caps inside, but neither made conversation with June or her parents, and when the three of them went outside, Joe giving them a tour of the farm, June couldn’t imagine an interesting conversation between them. She was sure they weren’t the type of friends who would stay the night, would be creeping around in Joe’s home.
“Someone’s here,” June said. “Who is that?”
Her brother’s voice had a sternness, a different sense of control. “You need to leave.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and kept his eyes on the carpet. He said it again.
June stood slowly, began to walk from the living room, but stopped before reaching the kitchen. She turned. Joe was still in the same stance, looking at his feet. “Dave and I are getting married,” she said, and waited for him to lift his head, to say something that made sense, but he didn’t.
June continued into the kitchen and noticed the white paper pharmacy bag on the counter. She pulled out the brown pill bottle from the bag and read the label across the top. Prozac. She thought she heard Joe’s footsteps and put the bottle inside the bag, opened the front door, and ran through the high grass.
She looked to the second story when she started the car and saw someone standing at the window. A woman who looked like her, but thinner, paler.
June’s head rested against Dave’s chest. She felt so small, so insignificant as she listened to his heartbeat. Their wedding song played and she moved her head so she could watch her white dress float above the dance floor. The dress cost more than their salary, Dave had joked, but it was the one time June didn’t feel guilty about spending her money.
The song ended and she looked around the Dickson City Country Club, searching for Joe in the sea of Dave’s relatives and friends. June told Dave she needed to use the restroom, but she walked to the parking lot instead, spotting Joe’s silver Jaguar.
She had seen him after the ceremony. She had been nervous, wondering if he would show up looking and acting in the neurotic way he often did now. His skin was always dry, his complexion too fleshy, his freckles blending into the paleness. He would rub his eyes continually until red rings were stenciled around his sockets. But now he’d shown up in a white tux with his hair slicked back. His complexion was rosy. They had embraced outside the Methodist church. Her brother’s body was a bag of sand, dense, seeming heavier than it looked. She had looked into his eyes, hoping he would smile, but he only stared at something over her shoulder. An invisible thing now stood between Joe and anyone around him, June thought. She didn’t think he saw or thought anything.
She could see Joe’s car at the far end of the parking lot from where she stood now. She walked closer, peered into the driver’s window, and saw that he had the seat fully reclined. His eyes were closed and his mouth hung open. His tie was undone, his legs spread apart, his hands dangling between them. There was music playing from the car radio.
June tried to open the door, but it was locked. She slammed her palms against the window. He didn’t move. She pressed her forehead to the glass and tried to concentrate on his chest to see if it moved in that elegant way that sleep demanded. She couldn’t tell if it was in her head or if his lips were really the deep purple that they looked in the dark shadows of the parking lot. A thought crossed her mind and when it did, she felt nauseated. If he lay there dead, she wouldn’t have to worry. All the fears she had kept inside, wound tight with a thick wire, would die too.
She began to kick at his car, clutching her dress in her fists and lifting it above her ankles.
Joe blinked. He wiped at his mouth. She stopped, rested her palms on the car, hunching her body forward. She tried to compose herself, her breathing, as he rolled down the window and turned off the music.
“Why are you out here?” June said.
Joe wouldn’t look at her. He stared through the windshield. She thought of him off in a field full of stone. “Why,” he said, “are you out here?”
“Your hair,” their mother said when she opened the door. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“It’s long,” their father said with the carving knife in his hand.
Joe had parked a new Tesla in the driveway and now stood at the front door. When he walked inside, he sat beside June at the table with Dave on the other side of her.
“I guess,” he said.
It was Thanksgiving. She hadn’t seen Joe since her wedding. When they started their meal, he dipped his fork into the mashed potatoes, taking the tiniest of bites. He didn’t eat any turkey, but poked a finger into the cranberry sauce like it was a button on a toy he was trying to turn on.
“Is there a problem?” her father finally asked. He put down his own utensils, folded his hands together, and set them on the table.
Joe wiped his finger on his jeans. June stared at the mark it left. “What do you want?” he said.
“I want you to stop playing with your food. I want you to lift your head and participate in the conversation.”
“But you’re not saying anything.”
“We were talking about the wedding.”
“That’s not really talking about anything.”
Her father slammed his hand on the table. June had never seen him angry like that. She had never seen him demand conversation. Their entire lives, they had mostly gone without it. Now, it seemed everyone craved it. Except for Joe. He seemed to want nothing, no one.
“Don’t come into this house if that’s how you’re going to act,” her father said. His voice quivered, as if surprised by his reaction, too.
“Fine,” Joe said, and stood. “That makes things a lot easier for me.”
Joe walked out the front door. He didn’t get into his car, but kept walking, past the hot tub, the barn, his thin hair moving with the wind. June followed her brother, forgetting her coat and leaving her parents and Dave sitting at the table. It was only forty degrees, but she felt hot, like it was summer and there she was just asking for a sunburn.
She shouted his name. He stopped walking and she imagined him holding a stone, her chasing him with the wheelbarrow even though he never would have moved that far ahead of her. He wasn’t wearing a coat either, and June watched the ribs in his back slam against his skin when she got closer.
She set her hand there. She wanted to ask him about the pills, about the green car in his driveway, the woman she saw through the window in his house. But she decided on only one question.
“Why are you taking those pills?”
Joe scanned the ground. “I’m depressed. At least that’s what they say.”
“Why are you depressed?”
He flopped his arms, his palms hitting the side of his thighs. “Does anyone ever know why they’re depressed?”
He turned away, looking out at the gas pad. There was something tall that looked like a crane, and it was on a cement base where water trucks and other metal equipment lived. She had never been this close before. June thought about telling Joe her plans then. She and Dave were leaving. They were going to try something new—pick a city to live in and see if they liked it. She thought she might be pregnant, too, and she hadn’t even told Dave. It was such a common thing, marriage, then children, but offering this information to Joe first seemed like a precious thing he might cherish.
“They make you tired, don’t they?”
Joe glanced at her. “It’s better than what I felt before.”
“Which was what?”
He crouched in the field and brushed his hand over the dry grass. “I thought I would farm, be like Dad. Have a family, maybe live in the house. Make my kids pick stone in the spring. But then it changed and I didn’t know what the hell to do.”
“It’s like Dad said, don’t act like it’s not there, but don’t rely on it.”
Joe bit his lip so hard she thought it would bleed. He began to pull at the grass. “They have something they never dreamed of and the only thing they can think to do is stop farming and watch it all go to shit.”
June’s body ached like it did when she had to pick stone, and she wanted to tell him what she knew neither dared to say out loud. She wished they didn’t have all that they did. She wished she could count on him like before.
June sat beside her brother in the field, but faced the house. He copied her, turning around, away from the pads. His smile was small, almost not there at all, but the way it appeared was slow. It was beautiful. He tipped his head back, closed his eyes. June imagined he was inhaling the smell of dead grass, the remnants of manure that never seemed to have left. She wondered if he was remembering the afternoons as she was, no matter what time of year, when they always knew what would happen next.
Sarah Walker is a writer living in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a Dennis Lehane Fiction Fellow at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College, where she is working on a linked story collection. Her work can be found in the Bridge, Burrow Press Review, and Cleaver, among others.