Cheryl’s bones cracked as she leaned back into her chair, the bent wood snapping and sagging under worrisome weight. John hadn’t come up the back stairs yet, leaning himself on the peeling, metal railing as he dragged his lumbering feet. She had listened for those familiar footsteps, straining her good ear in the direction of the door, the fading sun falling on her cheek through the cracked window. He hadn’t rung either. Everything was still and perfect and she sat, aware of the high pitch of the television turned low. The faces on the screen kept her company, but that was all.
They’d run out of meat before—many times, in fact. It wasn’t hardship, exactly, but this time the cellar had been overrun with rats, and their root crops were destroyed. They had used the last of the food stamps for Christmas dinner so that each of the seventeen grandchildren packed into the house would have a small trinket underneath the tree to open.
“Maybe up north I’ll find some game,” John said one evening, looking sallow underneath the glare of the bulb that hung from the tacky ceiling. “Elks got to be somewhere.”
“Ain’t that season,” she’d said, but knew it was no use. He’d be gone when she woke the next morning, having set out before dawn with his rifle laying in the back of the Model B. He’d park down-road, go out, crawl in the underbrush and wait out the land. But the land was fickle and possessive and he wouldn’t notice the landowner or the shotgun until he felt it at the back of his head.
Cheryl got up and pressed the pillows in his chair, taking them gingerly and hesitantly, afraid to handle them too harshly. She placed them back in the same place and listened with her good ear as if afraid of that something would fill up the sound of his absence.