Penny insisted on being called Penelope now, but Cain called her Penny like he did when they were together. She didn’t seem to mind. She had insisted on at least dinner and a night at her place before Cain made the drive from Boston to the house. Penny always made a great baked ziti when she had occasion to and they hadn’t seen each other in 6 years. In the wake of their respective nervous breakdowns and regrouping periods, a night of repose and catching up before his two hours in the car certainly called for that.
“Jesus H. Christ!” She exclaimed when Cain got out to the curb. “What have you done with my friend?” she said as the two hugged for what felt like an hour. Finally, they separated to really look at each other.
“Stop it,” he said as she opened the trunk for his bag.
“You, sir, are not getting in my car until you tell me what you’ve done with the fat, bearded man,” she said, looking him up and down.
“Can we go now?”
She grinned and walked around to the driver’s seat as Cain got in the other side.
“Seriously though, what’s your secret?” she said as she took three pieces of Nicorette from the console. Cain pulled a cigarette from his pack and held it up, his eyebrows raised, and looked at her. She leaned over to the glove box, got out a lighter and handed it to him. Penny had always promised herself that if and when she quit smoking she would never be one to prosilitize and so far she had been true to her word.
“I figured out what was making me fat and I stopped eating it,: he said. “A steady diet of Xanex and Sunny D helped too.”
She started to put the car in “Drive”, then, without looking up, flipped it back into Park and turned to him.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m clean now. Mostly.”
She nodded knowingly, and pulled out of the Passenger Pick-up lane at Logan and onto the highway. Cain had never been to this airport before. He had always flown in and out of LaGuardia. The times he had actually come home, that is.
“When was the last time you talked to her,” Penny asked as she flipped through stations on Syrius/XM.
“Couple months ago.”
“How was she then?”
“I don’t know. Okay, I guess.”
“Or not,” Penny looked at him, then back to the road.
“Yeah. Or not.” Cain replied. He pulled his money clip from his jeans pocket and counted again. $500. Enough to get a motel and meals for a few days until he made his decision.
“Well, I can put you up for a day or two. Mitzy gets back on Wednesday,” Penny said.
“I’ll be outta your hair tomorrow, I want to get on the road. And give you the chance to get rid of any trace of me. I don’t think your significant other would take kindly to even knowing I was here.”
Penny nodded. She had sent Cain quite a few letters when she was at Emerson. The one where she had finally owned up to her sexual orientation really came as no surprise to Cain. At the time, the two of them were on the way to mending their relationship that ended with his drunken rage and subsequent departure from the state and her checking into rehab. And it was no small order to admit to yourself and to the world that you like girls better than boys when you’re the daughter of a Lutheran deacon. It explained why the two had gotten along so well in every endeavor other than addiction and sex. When they were both drinking, they verbally fought to the death. She mocked his pretty crimes, saying he was too yellow to try to score big. He crucified her for her abundantly promiscuous past. When they were in the middle of sex, he gave it the old college try on a belly full of Jameson and Killians. Meanwhile, her coital demeanor said she wondered if watermelon was in season.
When they got to her duplex, Penny unlocked the door while Cain shifted nervously looking down both sides of the street. Inside, he put his backpack by the front door as Penny headed towards the bathroom.
“Anything to drink?” he called to her.
“In the fridge,” she said and closed the door. Cain took off his jacket and laid it on top of a recliner. He walked into the spotless kitchen and took a glass from one of three neatly placed rows in a cupboard, and opened the refrigerator. Pulling a can of Coke from the bottom shelf, he opened the freezer to look for ice. As he got a handful of cubes from the bin, a bottle neck caught his eye. He pulled out a half -empty bottle of Absolut at the moment Penny came into the kitchen, the toilet recovering from a flush behind her.
“If you had given me a little more notice I could have –“
She stopped when she saw him look at the bottle, then at her.
“Mostly,” she said, echoing him. It was his turn to give her a prolonged look in the eyes.
“How long has it been?”
“Four months, 3 weeks, 6 days,” She said as she took the bottle out of his hands and put it back in the freezer. One night. Mitzy and I had a fight,” she said matter-of-factly and retrieved her own soda from the refrigerator. “
“About?” he asked.
“That bottle, as it happens,” she said, putting her soda on the table, then knotted her long red curls into a makeshift pony tail. “I came home the night I aced my nursing boards and that was in the freezer in the same spot you pulled it from. She had bought it because she wanted to celebrate and didn’t think I would object.”
“But you did.”
“But I did,” she echoed. “I’m surprised the bottle didn’t shatter when I used it to practice my slider.”
Cain shook his head slightly and smiled at her, genuinely unsure if she was kidding. She smiled back like Cleopatra.
He smiled. “It’s good to see you,” he said.
He drove up the roundabout driveway and parked in front of the house. The battered green Altima’s engine sputtered for a few seconds, then died.
“Thrifty, indeed,” Cain said and pulled the key from the ignition.
Trees batted against the house in the strong wind. Cain zipped up his jacket and climbed the two long cobblestone stairways until he stood in front of the house. Blue paint chips riddled the last five wooden stairs up to the small front porch. Two large stone pots with rotten stems sat on either side. A storm door lay in the shrubs on the side of the stairs, hinges almost rusted loose and almost totally ripped from the wooden frame. Cain looked at the storm door, then at the front windows on either side of the door. The shades were drawn inside all of them, with a large jagged hole in one where someone had presumably deposited a projectile into his parents’ living room. He started up the last stairs, paused, then backed off and slowly walked to the dirt path around the house.
He couldn’t go in. Not yet.
He walked down to a back yard three times the size of the front. In one corner stood the herb garden, partitioned off with waste-high chicken wire and strawflower. In the center, the fire pit had been robbed of any remaining wood or kindling. In another corner was what was left of his father’s restored stone BBQ pit. The gas grill was firmly embedded, but the grill had been gutted of the grates and propane tanks. He walked over to the fire pit, gently kicked a large piece of cobblestone into the middle, then turned and surveyed the back of the house. Unlike the windows in front, all the back windows were shattered, the drapes all ripped away. The large, varnished wooden deck, the place where his family had spent summer evenings having dinner and playing Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble, was literally on its last legs. Most of the support beams were rotting and he could see a big gaping whole near the back door from where he stood in the yard below. Most of the steps on the stairwell going up to the deck were simply missing. Absorbing the whole scene, Cain concluded that his sister must have stopped any type of maintenance on the house a long time ago. Below the deck, what was once a stack of firewood had been reduced to a couple thin strips on the bottom row. Beside it was the door to the cellar
It was wide open.
Cain walked toward it, trying to see into the cellar but could make out nothing in the darkness. He descended down the enclosed stairway which was almost totally packed with leaves. As he did, he halted when he heard newspapers rustle inside the cellar, then silence.
He pulled his small Stihl blade from his back pocket, then stepped down the first two stairs.
Inside the cellar, he could barely see a long row of canning jars against one wall. Behind and beside all the jars were milk crates and old, yellow newspapers. As he climbed down the third and last stair in front of the open door and his eyes started to adjust to the darkness, one of the milk crates fell to the concrete floor with a loud Crack! Something ran past him, the weight of which knocked him off balance and to his knees. Once at the top of the stairs Cain had just descended, two rats the size of cocker spaniels turned and squealed angrily at him, then ran off into the yard.
Cain let out the breath he realized he had been holding for at least a minute, then collapsed his knife and put it back into his pocket. Climbing the stairs again, he went back to the fire pit and sat on one of the stone benches. Sliding his hands in his pockets, he looked up at the rapidly fleeting canopy cast by the trees all around the yard, the leaves on the branches being blown back into the forest beyond the yard. Out of the bushes near the herb garden, a rabbit came trotting over to the pit. Seeing Cain, he slowly and sporadically trotted over, his nose and ears darting this way and that.
“Nothing in there, little guy,” Cain said, glancing first at the herb garden, then the empty cellar. “Nothing at all.”