It was a grey, damp morning near the middle of summer. The rain had stopped just before dawn, leaving the grass prickled with golden dewdrops and smelling fresh. Hiram was fifteen years old then. Maybe it was a Saturday. Looking back on it, Hiram couldn’t remember all the details, but some he just couldn’t forget, like the frantic pounding that morning on the front door.
He jerked awake and sat up in bed. The pounding was like an alarm. Slamming his feet on the cold floor, he stood, grabbed his jeans from a pile on the chair next to his nightstand and danced in place, wriggling his feet through the stiff legs until they gave way. While he pulled the jeans up over his hips and did the top button, he cocked his head and listened to the muffled voices coming from below. His mama had answered the door. He snatched a shirt from the chair and threw it over his shoulders, working his arms through the sleeves as he hurried through his bedroom door. Like a small sail, the shirt tail billowed behind him and snagged on the doorknob. Turning to free his shirt, he jerked the door closed over his bare toes. The bottom edge of the door ripped the big toe nail on his left foot half off.
He swore and jumped around on one foot, holding the injured one in both hands, pinching the nail back into place. Blood oozed around its edges. Angry and hitting the door with the flat of his hand, he hobbled back into his room, sat on the edge of the bed and gingerly pulled two socks over his injured foot. When he pressed down on the injured toe again, blood stained the end of the socks. Grabbing a mismatched sock from off the floor, he put it on the other foot then eased both feet into his work boots and tightly laced them up.
“Hiram! You alright up there?” His mother, Bertha, called up to him. “Come on down. Alice is here. She needs you.”
“I’m comin’!” Still feeling the anger, he’d yelled back, but he immediately felt sorry. He hadn’t meant to yell at his mama. The injured toe wasn’t her fault. Sometimes his mouth got a little too far ahead of him for his own good. He hated when that happened.
He hopped down the stairs on his good foot, pretending to walk normally when he hit the bottom step. Pretending was a major part of living when you were fifteen. He saw they were seated on the sofa in the living room. His mother had her arm around Alice, holding her close. She looked up at him when he entered.
“Alice ain’t feelin’ too good. Zach’s been at it again.”
Hiram walked around the coffee table and sat down next to Alice. Her left eye was almost swollen shut, and her lip below the eye was split and bleeding, revealing the latest handiwork of her drunken father, Zach Biddle. Hiram reached over and took her hand and squeezed it gently. She squeezed back. Her head lay on his mama’s shoulder, and her good eye stared off across the room at nothing. It was as still and empty as a glass marble.
Hiram and Alice were next door neighbours and best friends. They rode the bus to school together, played in the woods behind his property and swam in the Juniata River after the summer rains filled its deeper pools. They were inseparable and bore the brunt of teasing from the other kids when they held hands on the bus or when Hiram carried her books home from school. Being a lot alike, they were oblivious to the taunts, not caring what others said or thought.
“They’re just jealous, Hiram. Hell, I don’t care. Do you?”
“Hell no. Just wish they’d find somethin’ else to do.” He kicked at a pebble in the path. It skittered away into the long grass at its edge.
“You know, we’re like two big sunflowers in your mama’s garden, Hiram, always turning to catch the light.” Holding her face skyward, she turned in a complete circle. “The rest are just pansies, wishin’ they were like us,” confirming her comment with a nod and a giggle.
Alice loved flowers. Hiram looked down at her. She was always talking like that, in big pictures he could understand. He was convinced that one day he’d marry Alice. He’d told her so, but she wasn’t so certain.
It was a warm summer day after a swim in the river when they stretched out on their towels, drying off in the sun, that Hiram noticed Alice had breasts. She lay on her back. Goose bumps puckered her arms, and her taut nipples pressed hard against the thin fabric of her swimsuit. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed them before. Holding her hand or carrying her books was as far as he’d got in his head. He hadn’t considered the rest.
Alice turned her head toward him. “What you starin’ at, Hiram?”
“Nothin’.” After being caught staring at her breasts, he turned, closed his eyes and lay face down to hide his unexpected reaction to what he’s seen.
“Bull. You’re lookin’ at me different.”
He turned his head round to face her. Her blue eyes met his. She was more goddamned beautiful now than he’d ever thought possible before. He couldn’t lie. He could never lie.
“Alice, we been friends since we been little. We’re not little anymore. I love you. When it’s right, I want you to marry me.” There, he’d finally said it.
She turned her face away from him and gazed up through the canopy of leaves to a patch of pale, blue sky. A tear dropped from the corner of her eye, slipped down the side of her face and disappeared into a lock of hair covering her ear. She turned back to Hiram.
“You can’t marry me. Hiram. As much as I love you, as much as you love me, I’m not for you.” With that she turned away and stared at nothing, not even the sky.
Hiram was hurt. Looking for some comfort, he slid his hand over next to hers and felt her warm slender fingers slip between his. They held tight to one another for awhile until she lifted his hand and placed it on the soft mound between her legs. The fabric of the swimsuit was warm and wet. Hiram thought it was from the swim they’d had. Opening her legs slightly, she pressed one of Hiram’s fingers into the softness. Her breathing changed.
“You feel that, Hiram?”
His throat was dry from breathing through his mouth.
“It’s soft,” he answered, “and hard at the same time.”
Alice kept her eyes open. She wanted to close them, but bad things always happened in the dark. She couldn’t let those things happen.
“That’s the bud.” She pressed harder as she spoke. “I’m afraid that’s as much and as far as you’re gonna get, Hiram.”
After a moment, she pulled his hand away and sat up. He pushed up on his elbow wanting to say something, but the right words wouldn’t come. Instead he followed her gaze to the river. They both watched the current ripple and sparkle in the sunlight as it flowed around a dead tree trunk that had fallen into the river, its roots still clinging to the pebbled shoreline. Water gurgled and foamed as it disappeared around the end of the log. Sheltered from the eternal flow of the river, a tangle of small branches and dead leaves scattered along the windward side of the log. A light breeze from up river rattled the leaves overhead, clattering them like rain on a hard, flat road, sprinkling more leaves at the edge of the water.
The air smelled of honeysuckle, and Hiram, searching for the source, spied a vine clinging to the tree that partially shaded them. He stood, traipsed over to the vine and picked some of the succulent blossoms; then he walked back to join Alice and crouched in front of her. Pinching the small, green calyx at the base of the flower, he pulled the style down through the neck of the blossom. At the tip of the style was a bud and suspended from the bud was a glistening drop of honey-flavoured nectar. Hiram lifted the bud to Alice’s lips. Opening her mouth, she took the drop on her tongue. He did the same with the second flower and savoured the sweetness for himself. He stared at the blossoms in his hand and smiled at the simple, sweet, hidden mystery. Alice reached over and picked up one of the blossoms. Holding it up to the light, she twirled the pale yellow flower between her thumb and finger.
“You see that, Hiram? That’s me.”
She gazed a moment at the spinning blossom in the bright sunlight; then she brought it to her nose and breathed in its sweet aroma.
“Looks good, smells good. But the sweetness is gone.”
“I’ll get you another one. Hold on.”
Hiram moved to get up, to go fetch another flower, but Alice grabbed his arm.
“Sometimes you’re a dumb ass, Hiram. You don’t listen!”
Hiram settled and listened, but he didn’t want to. Something told him he didn’t want to listen or hear or care. He loved Alice, plain and simple. She held the honeysuckle blossom up in front of his face. Her eyes glistened, filled with the truth of something Hiram didn’t recognize or maybe didn’t even want to know.
“The sweetness is gone, Hiram.” She shook the blossom in his face. “You understand? Taken from me. I’m a broken flower. I love you, but you’ll never marry me. I can’t let you.” She raised up on her knees, leaning in close to Hiram. She almost whispered it. “My daddy took it.” Her eyes were wide and wild. He held her gaze. It was a truth he hadn’t recognized, he hadn’t seen, he hadn’t known.
With that said, she sat back on the blanket, throwing the honeysuckle blossom up in the air till the breeze caught it. Landing in the water at river’s edge, it washed up against the dead log. For her, it was settled, but not for Hiram. For Hiram, it would never be – could never be – settled.
You get to know people from their habits, the way they move their hands when they talk or scratch the same spot on their face like a nervous tic or when they spit on the ground after making a point. Since the day Alice told him about the flower down by the river, Hiram had been observing the habits of Zach Biddle. For Hiram, this latest blackened eye and cut lip was just one more thing, one more reason. He expected no less from the likes of Zach Biddle. In Hiram’s estimation, a man like him didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Alice or even the same air as the rest of the world, for that matter. While watching and learning Zach’s habits, Hiram’s plan slowly took shape.
Some week nights, but mostly on Friday nights, Zach came home drunk. He’d barely ease the car in the driveway before he blacked out. Occasionally, he’d make it all the way into the garage and sleep it off, leaving the engine idling and the garage door open. Hiram’s plan counted on Zach making it all the way into the garage, so he waited. Patience was an integral part of his plan. It had to be. Killing a man and not getting caught, couldn’t be rushed.
That night, he counted the hours until he saw Zach’s car approaching. He watched from his bedroom window like he had many a night. The car jerked forward then stopped and stalled some fifty feet short of the driveway. Hiram started to doubt; then it started up again and shot forward hitting the curb at the edge of the drive before it straightened. Another spurt of gas carried it all the way into the garage. Brake lights illuminated the driveway. Hiram judged Zach was definitely drunk. From his astute observations, it wasn’t a difficult judgment to make. He tiptoed down to the first floor and slipped out the back door. Standing on the back porch stoop, he listened, hearing the thrum of the car’s engine and the low, steady rumble from its exhaust.
A canopy of stars blanketed the sky, but there was no moon and no shadow as he crept along the garage wall. Reaching the end, he peered into the garage. The car’s headlights lit the debris scattered against the back wall and backlit Zach’s dark outline inside the car. Hiram could see his head was tilted back over the top of the seat, his mouth gaping open. He crouched beside the car, scooted up along the passenger side and raised himself enough to get a good look at Zach and the dashboard lights. He feared the car might run out of gas before the job was done. The window was down, and he could see the gas gauge needle hovered at the half-full mark. Zach’s snore caught then continued. He was out cold. Crouching, he shuffled around the back of the car coming up on the driver’s side. That’s when he saw her.
Alice sat in the shadows just out of the headlight’s halo on the back wall, on the one step that led through the door behind her into the house. She had her arms wrapped around her knees, holding them tightly to her chest, rocking and humming along with the sound of the engine. Hiram thought her humming sounded like bees in a swarm. He crouched down beside the car and whispered as loudly as he dared.
“Alice! Alice! It’s me, Hiram.”
At the sound of her name, she turned her head toward him.
“Alice! Come on!” He motioned toward her.
She released her knees, unfolded her body and stood. Moving toward him, putting one foot carefully in front of the other, she walked like she was in a trance. He could still hear her humming. Just as Hiram stood and moved to help her, she glanced at her daddy sleeping in the car. At that moment, his head lulled to one side and faced them. Drool ran in a stream from the corner of his mouth. They both saw it at once and jumped back. Hiram heard Alice suck in a breath, preparing a scream, and he gently clamped his hand over her mouth, leading her out of the garage to the top of the drive. He had his arm over her shoulders and held her close. They stood that way for a while lit only by the reflection of the car’s headlights off the garage’s back wall.
“Why were you making that humming sound, Alice?”
She looked up at him.
“It’s the sound my daddy makes in my ear in the dark.” As she stared at the dark, shiny car and the darker hulk that slept behind the wheel, she started humming again. Hiram dropped his arm off her shoulders and took her hand. He wasn’t sure what was right; he just felt it.
“I want you to help me with something.”
He led her back to the garage but didn’t enter. Instead, he reached up for the garage door handle. The door was the kind that pivoted on a track and folded downward. It would close quietly, he knew. On another day, in preparation for this one, he’d oiled all the hinges and riveted joints. When he’d pulled the door part way down so she could reach it, he took Alice’s hand and placed it on the handle with his.
“I love you, Alice. I won’t let anyone hurt you again. But you got to help save yourself.”
With that, they pulled the garage door down together until it quietly latched.
He removed a rag from his back pocket and wiped the door handle clean. The darkness enveloped them, wrapping them for the moment in a soft silence. In that quiet moment, in the silence, Hiram realised Alice had stopped humming. It is finished, thought Hiram. Putting his arms around Alice, he drew her close. Her arms encircled his waist as her head rested gently on his chest. Her hair smelled like honeysuckle, or maybe he imagined it, like one always remembers the taste of a forbidden fruit. They stood for a moment in the dark, still silence, holding on together to the possibility that God would have to do the judging. Hiram stepped back and took her hand, leading her across the grass to his front porch.
They mounted the steps together, and Hiram held open the screen door for her.
“Evening you two.”
The voice startled them and stopped them dead in their tracks.
“Come on in.”
Hiram’s father, Henry, sat alone in the darkness on a wicker chair next to their front door. He lit a match that brightened the porch’s interior for an instant until he put it to the top of his pipe bowl and gently sucked the flame through the aromatic tobacco, filling the porch with the scent of apples and burnt sugar, a smell that always soothed Hiram.
“What you two been up to?”
In the momentary flash of the match flame, Hiram had seen the baseball bat lying across his father’s knees. His father had a sense of justice that wasn’t too far off from Hiram’s. The apple never falls far from the tree, his daddy had often said. Hiram knew then, had things gone wrong for him and Alice, his somehow omniscient father would have stepped in and meted out his own brand of final judgment on Zach Biddle.
“Just went for a stroll,” Hiram answered.
“You ok, Alice? Bertha told me about your troubles.”
“I’m fine, Mr. Beffer. I think my troubles are behind me now.”
“Let’s hope so. It’s a good place for ‘em.”
Hiram heard the hollow sound of the wooden bat as his father leaned it against the wall behind his chair.
“Let’s go inside. I think Bertha’s got something cookin’ in the kitchen.”
The three of them went through the door, Alice first, followed by Hiram then Henry. As they stepped through the door, Henry placed a hand on Hiram’s shoulder and squeezed. Hiram understood. God works in mysterious ways. His father didn’t have to say a word.
After a hot chocolate and a biscuit, hot from the oven, it was time to retire for the night. Alice chose the sofa. Bertha made it up for her with a sheet, a heavy blanket and a pillow and said good night.
“You sure you’re gonna be ok?” Hiram asked.
She looked up at him. “I’ll be fine, Hiram, when the sun comes up.”
“Won’t be too long now.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Night, Alice.”
Hiram wasn’t sure if he’d dreamed it or if Alice really did come to his bed during the night. It could have been wishful thinking, he thought, as his sleepy head mulled it over. The night had been filled enough with dreams and awakenings and heavy slumber in between. He rubbed the sand from his eyes, pulled on his jeans and tiptoed down the steps, not wanting to wake Alice. But the sofa was empty. He stared at the folded sheet and blanket resting on top of the pillow along with a note. He sat down on the sofa, pulled his feet up off the cold floor and read it:
Thank you, Hiram. You’re a good man. I’m free now. You saw to that. But I got to go. I got to go, Hiram. I got to go. Love Alice
He folded the note and pushed it in his jean’s pocket. Lifting the blanket and sheet off the pillow, he stretched out on the sofa and buried his face in her pillow, trying to remember everything–the blue sky, a light breeze and the scent of honeysuckle in full bloom.
Later that morning, Hiram sat on the porch with his daddy snapping green beans when a police cruiser pulled into the Biddle’s driveway. The officers got out of the car and put on their hats. One walked to the door and knocked while the other inspected the garage door. The officer at the front door disappeared inside the house when the door opened. The officer outside looked around a bit, walked down the side of the garage and back again. He gave up his investigation of the exterior and entered the house through the front door that had been left open.
Hiram and Henry had filled one pan with the snapped beans and started on another when the Biddle’s garage door opened. Both officers along with Alma Biddle, Alice’s mother, hurried out of the garage. They stood around, fanning their hands in front of their faces, letting the fumes clear out. They talked together a while, then Alma pointed toward the Beffer place. Hiram saw her point.
“Here they come, daddy.”
An officer strolled across the grass toward their house. He mounted the steps to the porch and knocked on the screen door, peering through the screen at Hiram and Henry as he did.
“Mind if I come in?”
“Not at all if you don’t mind us snapping some beans,” Henry said, “What’s the problem?”
The officer, his name tag said Phil Parish, stepped through the open screen door.
“Seems Mr. Biddle had a terrible accident. Left his car running in a closed garage. Apparently he’d been drinkin’, according to his wife, and well sir, he blacked out and didn’t wake up.”
“He’s dead?” Henry asked.
“Seems so. A body don’t last long without oxygen.”
“I heard that somewhere.” Henry added to an already obvious statement.
“Seems Mrs. Biddle’s daughter, Alice, is missing.”
“Well Alice was here with us last night. She and my son, Hiram, here are a little sweet on one another, if you know what I mean.”
“What time was this?” The officer pulled out a pad to make notes.
“Hiram, when did you and Alice go out?”
“It was just after sundown. It was still bright. We went through the woods and walked along the river, talkin’, skippin’ stones, then circled back through town and came back home.”
“Anyone see you? You stop off anywhere?”
“Not that I recollect. Neither of us had any money. We just walked and talked like we always do. We’re good company for one another.”
“My wife, Bertha made them hot chocolate and some of her homemade biscuits when they got back.”
“What time was that?”
Hiram answered. “’Bout nine or ten. Not real sure. Don’t have a watch.”
“My wife, Bertha, offered for Alice to stay the night if she wanted to and made up the sofa for her. Alice has stayed with us before.”
“What about this morning?”
“She was gone when I got up. It was early,” Hiram answered. “I figured she’d gone into town. Has a mind of her own sometimes and just takes off. She’ll show up. She’ll be broken up about her daddy, though,” Hiram added almost as an afterthought.
Phil folded up his notebook. “Ok. If you hear anything from Alice, let us know. We’d appreciate it.”
“We’ll be sure to do that, officer. Give our condolences to Alma,” Henry answered.
With a wave, the officer was gone. When he’d crossed the property line, Henry spoke.
“Where is Alice, Hiram.”
“I don’t know, daddy.” He pulled the crumpled note from his pocket. “She left me this.”
Henry read the note then got up and went into the house. After a few minutes, he returned empty-handed.
“Where’s the note?”
“I burned it,” Henry answered.
Later in the morning the coroner’s hearse arrived and backed up to the garage. The attendants wheeled out Zach’s corpse in a body bag, loaded it into the back of the hearse and drove away without fanfare like a simple grocery delivery van. Next, a tow truck arrived and pulled Zach’s car from the garage. Apparently Alma had no more need for it or couldn’t stand the idea that it was where Zach had taken his final, drunken breath. The driver hopped from the cab of the truck and closed the garage door. The well-oiled door clicked into place without a sound.
Hiram hadn’t heard from Alice for two days now. He wasn’t worried yet, but it was working on his mind, and if he thought about it, he could get worried. Trying not to think about it, he weeded the garden for his mama and split some logs for the stove, keeping himself busy. He was just driving the wedge through a stubborn log when he saw Alma Biddle hurrying across the grass toward him. She stopped in front of him and waited till he put down the sledge hammer. Bertha had been standing at the kitchen window watching Hiram split the logs. When she saw Alma, she called out.
“Henry, come quick!”
She stepped out on the back porch stoop and a few seconds later, Henry joined her.
“I’ll have you know, Hiram Beffer, that I just got a call from the po-lice. They found Alice’s body in the Juniata River, all crushed and broken like. What do you have to say to that?”
“I’m sorry.” Hiram was truly sorry.
“Sorry? That all you got to say!”
Henry stepped down off the porch. “Alma, leave the boy alone. He had nothin’ to do with it. He loved that girl.”
Hiram stood in silent shock at the news.
“So you say, Henry Beffer. She was his girl, warn’t she? You’d think he’d take care o’ her. Po-lice say the way they found her, the place they found her, she jumped off the route 220 bridge. You don’t do that for love, Henry.”
Hiram looked up at Mrs. Biddle. “I did love her, Mrs. Biddle.” It was all he could say.
She turned to Hiram. “Yeah. But not enough.”
She turned to Henry and Bertha. “I gotta lose a husband and a daughter in one week!” She raised her hands to the top of her head, lost and crazed, pulling at tufts of her thinning hair. “Oh God, what did I do?”
Bertha came down off the porch and marched over to Alma. Standing in front of her, she waited until Alma’s eyes met hers. Bertha stared at her like she was a curious specimen in a glass case, tilting her head to one side, speaking like you would to a child.
“You know what you did, Alma? Do you really know? You know what killed your daughter?”
Alma stumbled back away from the questions.
In pursuit, Bertha took a step forward. “You closed your eyes.”