Francine chased her cereal with the spoon, while in the other room Cornice received another hiding. The milk had overwhelmed the wheat flakes and they were soggy and broken down. Hiding was the word Dale always used, as in I’m going to give you a good… but it was often visible and always audible.
Personally, Francine felt Dale needed to learn his own lessons about the art of concealment; she herself had been stashing cigarettes and coins in odd places around the house for years, and not for any other reason but that she could. Even now, Cornice might empty a cupboard and a penny would roll out; or discover that the mousehole in the baseboard was not abandoned, but discreetly blocked with a decomposing Morley. Francine drew circles in the milk and assessed the severity of the lesson being taught on the basis of Cornice’s feedback.
Dale was a supply teacher and he was going above and beyond his duty, he said, to provide home schooling to Cornice. It wasn’t clear to Francine exactly what this particular lesson was about, because the ceiling fan’s troubled rotor masked much of the content. Dale was forever saying he’d fix it, but maybe there was a reason why he didn’t.
Francine grew tired of the pretense of eating. She dumped the mushed cereal in the bin, along with the spoon; another emerging habit. Cornice was always despairing at the perpetual disappearances of things like cutlery or clothing. After a moment’s consideration Francine tossed the bowl in too, covering it up with some newspaper. Once, she’d thrown Dale’s good lighter away, but regretted doing so when he’d subsequently educated Cornice on the importance of looking after his personal property.
Dale came into the kitchen and sat down to finish his breakfast. Cornice could be heard slow-ascending the stairs. Francine filled the sink and washed the pans on tip-toe. She could feel Dale’s eyes on her, then thought it was funny how she could feel anything that was so intangible. She wondered if she was wrong, that maybe Dale wasn’t looking anywhere at all – and she’d begun to doubt her instincts – but when she turned around, there he was, one hand held out, frozen in a gesture, as though he’d made an important point that she’d missed.
‘People need to learn,’ was all he’d say. And it was true, thought Francine. They did.
She announced her intention to go to school, as if this was an unexpected development, then put on her camo jacket and squeezed through the back door, sidling through the rainbow strips that always felt like they might, at any moment, become descending spiders. Francine waited outside for a few moments, to see what the house was like without her. It seemed less weighty, but still uneased. She calculated alternative habitation combinations: Francine + Cornice, Cornice + Dale, Francine + Dale, and knew which one was preferable, but what she couldn’t calculate was the formula by which it could be achieved.
From the bus stop across the road, Francine looked at the upper windows of the house. Through a gap in the curtains, she thought she could see Cornice, but the morning glare made it hard to be certain. The bus arrived and departed without Francine. Without thinking too much, she walked in the opposite direction to school, towards the industrial estate, where most of the town ended up working.
She saw enough people she recognized, but no one noticed she wasn’t going the right way. Possibly she just looked like someone who belonged there, a consideration that opened up new possibilities in terms of blending in, a skill she’d been honing since a young age.
On her first day of elementary school, for example, when she’d stuffed herself into the cupboard beneath the sink in Mrs Johnson’s homeroom, and it’s taken the janitor and a pry bar to get her out. Or years later, when she’d infiltrated Miss Garbarino’s English group, in order to avoid attention in Mr. Naden’s much smaller class, whose forensic focus was unwelcome. That she’d been able to convincingly forge a letter from the principal sanctioning the transfer was a matter for the board, but it was also something Dale had taken in hand, given that he’d uncovered the deception during a rare appearance at her school.
But when Francine got to the estate, she kept walking, because there was no job yet for her to go to. She cut through empty lots, squeezed through fences and struggled over neglected areas whose prior purpose it was hard to figure. The further she walked, the more desolate and overgrown everything became, until she came to a place where the natural world asserted itself. She entered a copse that was dark and deep green; the air undiminished. Francine thought she might stay for a while. An hour or two. Forever.
The copse thickened and became woodland or a forest. Francine was unclear about distinctions between gradations of vegetated areas, but she was aware that beyond the estate was an expanse of land that was constantly being fought over between developers and conservationists; the sort of place that in later years she might be expected to frequent with her peers in the name of teenage transgression, had she been anyone other than herself.
Slender trees broadened into mighty oaks. The forest – she had decided – became looming and dark. But at one point, over a thickerousness of felled or fallen trees, a glade opened up, in the center of which lay a body. Francine cleared a stump of leaves and took a seat to consider the matter.
The body was clearly a body, although it didn’t look like a person; a formerly-alive thing. It was supine, in the pose of a fallen asleep: one arm over the face as though post-faint, the other splayed out all a-drama. Francine thought about poking it with a stick to verify life was extinct, but something – an abstract and unclear idea – told her all she needed to know.
She wondered if a person stopped being a person when not alive, or if there was some other reason she was reluctant to apply a term more intimate than ‘it’. But she didn’t fret about this; Francine was familiar with such notions as separation and distancing with regard to coping and survival.
The body was dirty, but clothed. It was unclear as to how it might have gotten there, or what had happened post-arrival; there were no tracks, although there was trash, which included a packet of supermarket-brand potato chips.
Francine looked up and around. There were nests in the tree branches and hollows in the trunks. There might be any number of witnesses, if you counted animals, which – she imagined – no one did. Some of the clothes were torn and one of the legs was twisted the wrong way. Or else the other was; it was hard to tell. Regardless: things were out of place.
Francine had seen a body once before, but it was presentable, not like this. Outside of movies and TV, she wondered how many times the average person might reasonably be expected to be faced with death in any such way. Cornice had found one of her colleagues on the floor of the toilets that time, and Dale claimed to have discovered the chemistry teacher he was subbing for in the fume closet.
She walked around to the other side to see the face, but it was hidden by the arm, which pointed at Francine, offering up the ring on its finger. Not wanting to touch it, she put on her gloves. It made the operation tricky, but eventually the ring came off – a bright and heavy silver – and she placed it on her own finger, over the glove, where it just about fit. Nothing about this felt odd or surreal to Francine; much of what came to her in the world, she accepted. She placed a pebble at the head of the body and left.
Francine walked back the way she came, never certain if she was retracing her steps, or if the path she was taking was new, but certain signs gave her confidence: a brook looked familiar; so too a run of neglected fencing. Soon enough, the metal-stink of the estate filtered through to her, along with the echoing Doppler’s traffic. She was dry-mouthed and tired; an absence of appetite didn’t mean her body ceased to require food. Francine’s return to urbanicity felt like crossing over from an area of low pressure to high, with the corresponding pop in her ears.
She emerged into the oversprawl of the estate, not far from where she’d entered. The return leg coincided with the end of the day shift. Francine joined the rest of the workers walking home. She felt at ease among her people. There were many different jobs on the estate. Cornice had worked several times. Francine would be suited to at least one or two of them, but was indifferent as to what they might be.
Back home, Cornice was unseen, but her presence could be felt. Francine had never been able to explain it; it was as though she vibrated the air. Dale, on the other hand, seemed to exist constantly, even when not around. On this occasion, however, he was demonstrably present and might not have even moved had it not been for his shaved face and change of clothes; a gesture, in the event of a work summons, although he hadn’t been called up for weeks that seemed like months.
The table was set for dinner, but all three plates were empty and there was no aroma of the pending meal. Dale rose as Francine entered. She guessed that the school had informed him of her absence and wondered if a make-up lesson was about to be scheduled. It might have been, but Dale saw the ring on Francine’s finger and pulled at it, taking her glove off too.
No words were spoken and she was sanguine about the matter. Dale sat back at the table, appraising the item. Francine made a sandwich for herself and took it upstairs. Through a door ajar, she could see Cornice on her bed. Francine knocked softly, twice, and received the same in return. Satisfied, she went to her own room, then took up a pen and wrote quickly.
Nothing was said about her absence from school, but a few weeks later, Dale was arrested. Neither Cornice nor Francine attended the trial. Instead, they read about it online. Dale denied the charges and there wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty, but he’d tried to sell the ring, which hadn’t looked good.
The police interviewed Francine, of course, because Dale had told them where he’d gotten it from, but she claimed to have no knowledge of anything. That alone had probably damned her somewhere further down the line, but it was a matter for future Francine to worry about. We do some fucked up things, she thought, but: no. It was more that sometimes the world oriented people in the direction of fucked-upness and they chose to walk towards it. Dale had been unable to account for his whereabouts during certain and particular dates, so he ended up being charged with the lesser offense of obstruction of justice and given a year in Gilmore.
Cornice told Francine she wouldn’t be taking him back when he was released. Even so, the announcement hardly seemed newsworthy. She might have said they were switching to skim milk, or that it was going to rain later. It was possible, Francine supposed, that Dale was innocent and that a person who bore responsibility for a thing was out there somewhere, escaping justice and amazed at their good fortune. But even then, she reasoned, if only for a short time, there was one less bad man in the world.