When the sky went green, Agnes White bolted the shutters and double-checked to make sure she’d brought all the laundry in. Unburdened of its freight, the line hung listlessly in the heat.
The prairie was an eerie place without the wind. She stood on the front porch with Otis panting at her feet, looking out over the tall grasses. The landscape was as still as a painting, shades of citrine and sage against a peridot sky. Agnes had only seen clouds that color once before, back in 1921. The year of the floods in San Antonio. Over 200 people dead, although she was too young at the time to understand the death toll.
The floods had been the result of a cyclone, but there was nothing like that on the horizon; she knew that much from the small weather radio that hung in the kitchen. She kept it on most days; it was good company while she canned or did chores. No, today was something else. Tornadoes had been forming across the state, leaving behind widespread swaths of destruction. It was early in the season for such storms, but Agnes had never seen a twister that cared much about being on time.
She’d already prepped the shelter inside the barn. She and Otis would camp out in there for the night, just in case the storm decided to show up in the wee hours.
“Good thing the horses are gone, huh old boy?” she said, reaching down to scratch Otis behind the ears. He closed his eyes in doggy ecstasy for a moment and yawned, decidedly indifferent to the fact that there were no other animals to take care of.
Agnes had sold everything off the year before; when her arthritis got so bad she could barely close a fist, she knew it was time to make a change. It was the right decision--the chickens had been a pain in the ass--but she sometimes missed the horses. They’d been wild and beautiful things, running around the fields with manes flying behind them like ribbons. Not much use in keeping them, though, and she’d gotten a fair price for them at market. The money had allowed her to pay off what was left on the mortgage, and social security helped with the rest. She would never be rich, but that was fine. Hers was a small life, but comfortable.
“You hungry?” she asked Otis. He stood and nosed the screen door open, padding inside the house.
Agnes dumped a helping of chicken, oats, and gravy into his bowl and got herself a glass of water as he lapped it up, drank it leaning against the kitchen counter. The mercury had shot up at least five degrees in the last couple of hours, and the air in the house was close. She plucked the front of her shirt between two fingers and waved it back and forth, creating her own breeze. It was too hot to even consider eating her own dinner; she didn’t feel like chasing down her food after it rolled off the fork. Damn heat gave her the shakes something awful. There was an air conditioner--a window unit--in her bedroom, which helped her sleep when summer really got cranked up, but it didn’t do much for the rest of the house.
The weather radio suddenly erupted in a burst of static, drowning out the report that Tom Bevins was giving. Agnes only caught snatches, a word here and there, but it was all she needed. She'd been listening to Tom for 20 years and there was no mistaking the urgency in his voice now.
"C'mon, Otis," Agnes said briskly. "Time's up."
They walked in the gathering wind, both of them haunted by the whistling sound that careened through the weeds. The clouds were low and dense, fat blue waves with veins of white running through them. Agnes paused once they reached the barn and turned to look at the house; it looked so vulnerable there, sitting alone as it was. Briefly, she wondered if the Thompsons had heard the warning and made it to their own shelter. She could just see the edge of their roof across the prairie, about a half mile down the road.
"Nope, they're still in Florida," she said to Otis. "So that's okay."
The closest neighbor on her other side, Ed Tankersly, was visiting his daughter in El Paso until Tuesday, and Agnes said a little silent prayer for that. Ed was in a wheelchair and she couldn’t imagine the difficulty she would have had getting him down into her shelter; he didn’t have one of his own.
She led Otis inside the barn and wedged a 2x4 across the doors to hold them in place. All the tools that might become flying weapons of destruction had already been removed; the place was as empty as she had ever seen it, and she felt a pang of grief strike a chord in her midsection. With the horses, she’d had living things relying on her, beautiful creatures who greeted her everyday with pleasure. She’d cared for animals of some sort every year of her life since she was a small child. Now it was just her and the hound, and he was slowly going blind and nearly poisoned her every night with his dogfarts.
The wind began to pick up, keening through the cracks between the weathered boards of the barn like a mother who has lost her child. Agnes helped Otis down the steps, into the cellar, and ignited two lanterns before securing the doors above their heads. As the storm cranked up, she wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and pulled Otis close, breathing in his comforting doggy scent. When the floorboards overhead began to shiver, Agnes looked up and saw a whirlwind of light and shadow, flickering like an old television set.
As the barn creaked and groaned, Agnes and Otis hunkered down underground and waited for the future to come for them.
When the quiet rolled in, Agnes half-stood and cautiously duck-walked to the cellar doors. There was light, but it was faint. At nearly 7:30, dark was swiftly falling behind cloud cover. She pulled the latch and pushed open the doors, trailing one hand behind her to guide Otis. He nuzzled her palm with his wet nose and followed her outside, where the world seemed to have been tipped sideways.
“Glory,” Agnes whispered as she surveyed the land.
The prairie was filled with blue light. The line of trees that grew at the edge of her property were splintered into lumber, all except for one at the end that merely leaned drunkenly to one side. There was a swath of grass leading to the treeline that had been laid down in a perfect row by the twister. The house was, miraculously, still standing, but the roof was missing a great chunk, as though a giant had walked up and taken a bite. Shingles lay scattered across the front yard; wood beams had been thrown as far as the eye could see. Trash and debris dotted the landscape. Agnes could see empty cereal boxes of a brand she didn’t even buy; they must have flown over from the Thompson’s. One lonely Walmart circular flapped in the breeze and stuck to her foot, a refugee from the decimated mailbox.
“Well, shit,” Agnes said.
There was nothing to be done for it but get to work. The yard could wait, she realized, but the roof would have to be covered before the rain started up again. The storm had taken out the patch of roof just above the living room, leaving debris and exposed wires dangling from the hole. The power was out, of course, and all the furniture was soaked with rain water.
Agnes led Otis carefully through the mess and into the bedroom, where he plopped down in his bed with a deep sigh that said he’d had enough action for one day. There were tarps and a ladder in the garage; Agnes fetched them and began the arduous task of nailing the plastic down on the roof. Her fingers went numb about halfway through, so it was slow going.
With no light inside, there was little else to do once she was finished but go to bed. Agnes stripped out of her muddy clothes and crawled under the covers, already tired with just the thought of all the work to be done when morning came.
When a rustling sound broke the silence sometime after midnight, Agnes stirred in her sleep. But she didn’t wake, not even when something crashed outside her bedroom window. Not even when the scent of something living wafted on the air, the smell of a cage in a zoo.
The mess was much worse in the early light.
Dusk had provided too much cover, too many shadows to hide the worst of it, but when the sun came up the fields practically glittered with mess. Agnes locked Otis in the house so he wouldn’t hurt himself and set out for the day, armed with trash bags and thick gloves. She placed these inside a wheelbarrow and grabbed a rake from the tool stash inside the shelter.
Within an hour, she had two large black bags filled; these went to the dump behind the barn, where she kept a barrel for burning what she could. This far out in the boonies, there was no trash service. She made her way out to the tree line and stood silently for a moment, surveying the land. It was truly a shame, the storm taking what it had. Those trees had been standing for longer than Agnes had owned the land, had provided shade and shelter for various animals.
She walked closer, kicking aside twigs and broken limbs, and found what she’d known would be there: a tire on a rusty chain. It was over thirty years old, but until yesterday it had still been attached to the tree.
Agnes sniffed and turned toward the house, her thoughts moving to a cold glass of sweet tea. Otis would be expecting a few blueberries, or maybe a sliver of cantaloupe; she usually had fresh fruit with lunch and he always got a bite. When the toe of her shoe caught on something firm, she stopped and looked down, blinking in the sun against a glaring bright spot in her vision.
“What the devil…?” she murmured, kneeling down to inspect the shiny object closer.
It was an oversized resealable plastic bag, like the kind she kept vegetables in when she wanted to freeze them. Only instead of squash or zucchini, this bag held fat rolls of money.
Agnes sat down in the grass, felt the seat of her jeans wet through immediately, and ignored it. What the hell was a bag of cash doing on her property? And more importantly, who might be looking for it?
Reluctantly, she picked up the bag, hefted its weight. More money than she’d ever held in her lifetime, more than she had ever had in the bank. The rolls of green were secured with rubber bands, each bigger than her fist, twenty rolls in all. She couldn’t leave it here. She’d take it with her, keep it safe until she could find out who had lost it. This might be someone’s life savings I hold in my hands, she thought. Agnes wrapped the package in a black trash bag and secured it in the bottom of the wheelbarrow, which she moved to the inside of the barn.
She couldn’t have said why, but she felt better knowing it was safe...and not in her house.
“But why wouldn’t it be covered?”
Two days later Agnes sat in her kitchen, looking up at the jagged hole in her roof, sweating through her t-shirt. She’d been on the phone for twenty minutes, trying to make heads or tails of her insurance policy with a man named Walter. So far, Walter wasn’t being very helpful.
“I see here that you changed your homeowner’s policy back in…’82, is that right?” Walter said.
“Yes. I spoke to someone named Janet who assured me that it was the right decision, since I was looking to save money. It dropped my premium by almost fifty dollars.”
“I understand that, Mrs. White, but we made some changes to our policies last year. You should have gotten information about it in the mail.”
“Yes. See, you’re currently on the bronze tier, and that level no longer includes damages from natural disasters.”
Agnes closed her eyes and sighed. “So you’re telling me that I have a hole in my house, destroyed furniture, and water damage, and the policy I’ve been paying on for twenty years isn’t going to help me with any of it?”
“I’m afraid not. Now, if you want to upgrade your policy right now, I can do that over the phone--”
Agnes hung up and scrubbed a hand over her face, wishing she had a cold beer. She rarely drank these days, but damn if a frosty bottle didn’t sound incredible.
She looked around the house, at the holes where her furniture had been; she’d dragged the damaged pieces outside, where they sat waiting for the junk man to come haul them away. A man from the electric company had already been out to restore power and she’d had him take a look at the exposed wires dangling from the ceiling. They’d turned out to be connected to external sources, the porch lights and garage and the big lamp over the barn door. It would take them some time to fix it, the man had said, and there was already a backlog of problems up and down Buffalo Road, so it was going to take a few days at least. By Wednesday, she might be more of a puddle than a woman, she thought bitterly.
Agnes looked down at Otis, who was panting at her feet, and scratched behind one long, silky ear. He was a purebred Basset Hound, but these days he was more interested in sleeping than sniffing anything out. He opened one bloodshot eye and rolled it up to Agnes, almost as if he knew what she had in mind.
“C’mon,” she said. “It won’t be so bad. At least there’ll be a breeze to speak of.”
Buffalo Road ended on a bluff overlooking the Salt River, and it was there that the residents gathered every Sunday to hold an unofficial farmer’s market. It was the perfect spot, since the only access road to the river for fishermen and picnicking families ran alongside the bluff and t-boned Buffalo. This early in the year there wouldn’t be many customers, but Agnes had canned peach and apricot preserves to offer to the ones who did show and besides, she liked the company. She hadn’t seen her neighbors since the storm had hit, had no idea what sort of damage they were looking at in their own houses.
There was indeed a decent breeze coming off the river. Agnes spotted Ed in his silvery wheelchair, as well as Steve Thompson and two of the Harvey girls from further down the road. There were simple canopies set up over a few card tables, which were laden with homemade blueberry muffins, banana bread, zucchini bread, and cornbread; so far, no customers.
“There she is!” Steve cried heartily as she walked up, pulling her red wagon full of preserves. Otis walked dutifully alongside her and sat without grace in a spot of shade, where one of the Harvey girls--Agnes thought maybe it was Lily, the eldest--cooed over him and stroked his head.
“How is everyone? Still got backends on yourselves, I see,” Agnes said with a smile.
“Just barely,” said Ed. “Twister cut right through my barn, flung the riding mower two hundred feet. It’s smashed to pieces.”
“Oh, you’re kidding,” Agnes said, reaching out to pat his gnarled hand. “Was it insured?”
“Nah. It’s alright. After this, my daughter offered to have me come live at her place. I’m gettin’ too old to live alone, anyway.”
“Well I’m sorry to hear that, Ed,” Agnes said, and she meant it. She’d known Ed and Maureen Tankersly for three decades or more; when Maureen died of cancer in ‘77, Agnes practically lived at their house for weeks, taking care of Ed and helping him adjust to living alone. He’d been using the wheelchair for a couple of years, ever since being diagnosed with diabetes, but until he lost Maureen, he was a healthy, vibrant man. Grief had taken so much from him. “But I’m sure your daughter will love having you. As for the mower...I feel your pain. I’ve got a hole in my roof and the insurance company says they won’t pay.”
“Lordy,” Ed said. “Ain’t that a kick in the head?”
“That can’t be right,” Steve said. “Did you look over your policy? Double-check the wording?”
“Oh yeah, I’ve been all over it. Talked to an agent this morning. He dug his heels in and tried to get me to upgrade my policy, but I hung up on him. I’ll figure it out.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been down to check on you,” Steve said to Agnes. “It’s been crazy up at the house. We just got back this morning and Sarah is going nuts, trying to get everything in order. I told her it will take some time--the storm took out a tree in our front yard and it busted out the picture window in the living room, did some damage to the siding--but she’s insisting on fixing it now. Plus the twister knocked out part of our barn and sucked a bunch of stuff up, threw it everywhere. And Michael, he’s...well, he’s a teenager. You know how they can be.”
“Yes,” Agnes said. “I do.”
“Oh, hey,” Steve said softly. “I’m sorry about that. I forget, sometimes--”
“No sorries,” Agnes said briskly. “It was a long time ago.”
“Anyway, I talked to Joe from Texas Light & Power, and he said he’d just been down at your place and that you were okay.”
“Just dandy, although I had a mighty fine mess on my hands,” Agnes said, taking a seat in one of the camp chairs beneath the canopy. “Storm blew everything hell to breakfast around my yard. Speaking of which, I think I got some of your trash. Sweetum-Os?”
Steve laughed. “Oh yeah, Mike loves that sugary shit, pardon my French. Kid’s going off to college in the fall but he still eats like he’s nine years old. I’ll come down there later today and take care of it.”
“No worries at all, it’s done,” Agnes said. “I’m sorry to hear about that picture window, though. I always admired it.”
“Yeah, well, Sarah will have a bigger and better one put in soon enough, I guarantee it. Ah, hell. Some good came from it, I guess, we got a little rain. Maybe we’ll be able to hold off a drought this year. At least the corn field wasn’t damaged.”
Agnes caught a quick look from the younger Harvey girl, whose expression was unreadable as she regarded Steve from beneath heavy blue eyeliner. After a moment, she turned away and plucked a dandelion from the side of the road, stuck it in her mouth to chew on the stalk.
“Did you get a call from animal control?” Ed asked Agnes.
“What? Why would I? About Otis?”
“No, there’s some wild beast on the loose around here apparently.”
Agnes turned to Steve, who was nodding. “I haven’t found anything around our place, but Bob Harvey said there were some big tracks around their garage this morning. Called animal control, but they couldn’t find anything either.”
“Any ideas on what it could be?” Agnes asked.
“Not a one, but Bob said whatever it is, it’s big. Could be a bear, I guess, although what it would be doing around here I’m sure I don’t know. Maybe the storm blew it off track.”
“A bear,” Lily Harvey shuddered, wrapping her arms around Otis. “I truly hope there aren’t bear tornadoes coming through here.”
Everyone laughed at that, but it felt false in Agnes’ mouth as she looked at Ed, a man confined to a wheelchair who lived alone. She thought of offering him a shotgun; she owned two, purely for security reasons, and had never used one since the day she’d learned to shoot. Ed would probably scoff at the idea, or worse, think she was trying to mother him. No, she’d better keep her offers to herself.
But she would take one of the guns from it's locked drawer later, just to be sure.
Later, Agnes lay in bed with her arms folded beneath her head, looking up at the ceiling in the dark.
It was the money that was keeping her awake. All that money, just laying unclaimed in her barn. Rolls and rolls of it, fat rolls at that, bundles that would make thick stacks when laid flat. She couldn’t begin to guess an amount, but she was sure it was enough to cover the cost of a roof repair twenty times over.
What was she considering? She didn’t recognize the thoughts swirling in her head. It was as though they were coming from an alien transmission, ideas that weren’t her own but had been placed in her mind forcefully. How could she even think about taking something that wasn’t hers?
On the other hand...who knew she had the money? No one, and no one ever would, her mind whispered.
Agnes swung her legs over the side of the bed and grabbed the flashlight she kept in the nightstand. Otis lifted his head from his spot on the floor and watched with interest for a moment, then laid back down and farted magnificently.
“Christ, Otis, you’d think I only fed you broccoli and liver,” Agnes said, wrinkling her nose as she made her way cautiously to the doorway. “You sure know how to clear a room.”
Outside, the moon was high enough to provide quite a bit of light, turning the grass a shade of blue that reminded her of Kentucky. She’d visited once, a million years ago. The barn loomed ahead, a keeper of secrets shrouded in gloom. Agnes shone the flashlight through the big double doors and spotted the wheelbarrow, right where she’d left it.
The cash was safely tucked inside, beneath layers of trash bags. Agnes pulled it out, debated sticking it back, and rolled it up under her arm before she could change her mind.
On the way back to the house, a strange sound reached her.
Snuffling, grunting. The smell of something wild and humid filled her nose as movement in the brush to her left caught her eye.
“The bear,” she whispered. Counted the steps to the house, where a shotgun sat waiting. Why, Lord, why hadn't she brought it with her? She tried to remember what she had been taught, how to load and how to pump, but all she could pull up in her memory was how to aim. If it really was a bear, and if he was as big as Steve claimed, her aim was the last thing she was worried about.
The bushes rustled again and Agnes backed up, readying the flashlight in case she needed to throw it, but what emerged was not a bear. It wasn’t even close.
“A pig?” she cried, and erupted into relieved giggles.
It was a pig alright, a big black one, wild as the day was long. It snuffled along the ground, not even paying attention to Agnes as it hunted for something to eat.
“You hungry, Bubba?” she asked. The storm might have misplaced him; she’d never seen a feral pig outside of the woods, and there were no forests for miles.
In the kitchen, she grabbed the bag of compost material she kept for the garden and dumped it into a large bowl; potato peels, carrot ends, green onion bulbs, corn cobs. She sat it outside along with a bowl of clean water and smiled, imagining the look on her neighbors’ faces when she told them about their “bear”.
As she turned to go back inside, the smile wilted from her face. She had the strongest feeling that someone was watching her. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up as though electrified. She scanned the horizon, but nothing moved in the moonlight. If someone was watching her, they were doing it from the shadows.
Two days later, Agnes watched as a truck full of roofers pulled up in front of the house, armed with tools and ready to work. Doug Sanderson, the contractor she’d hired, pulled in right behind them and hopped out of the truck. He looked very official with his clipboard and hardhat.
“Morning!” Doug called. “Looks like your place got a little beat up in that storm.”
“More than a little, but not a lot,” Agnes said from the porch, smiling a little. It was what she’d thought to herself while pulling money from the bag to fund this operation: More than a little, but not a lot. Otis grunted at her feet, seemingly able to read her mind. She felt his judgement and sniffed.
“Hush, you,” she whispered.
“Well, we’re ready to get to work if that’s okay by you. Alright if we take those tarps down and lay them inside? They’ll provide good cover for your furniture.”
“That’s fine, but I don’t have much furniture in there. Water damage.”
Doug nodded. “Ah. Sorry about that. Well, we’ll try to be as quick as possible so we can get out of your hair.”
“Take your time. I’ll be in the garden if you need anything.”
Agnes led Otis down the steps and to the side of the house, where her little garden was thriving. There was no sign of the pig, but the bowls she’d sat out were empty. He must have gotten his fill and moved on.
It had been several days since she’d tended the garden, and the weeds were taking over. Agnes pulled out the little stool she kept outside for just that reason and sat down, started yanking them out. It was too early in the season for much, but she’d already planted cucumbers and tomatoes, plus some herbs in a smaller plot. When summer came she’d have a nice harvest, especially with the corn she got from the Thompsons.
The heat rose steadily, and by eleven o’clock Agnes was ready for a break. She stood slowly, not wanting to invite dizziness, and waited for Otis to follow. A glass of iced tea sounded perfect; she’d make a big jug of it to share with the roofers. Their steady banging had provided a soundtrack to her work in the garden all morning; surely they were ready for a break, too.
Before she could make it inside, a figure on the road caught her eye: Steve. He waved and she returned it, stretching her back for a moment before walking up to meet him. Otis padded dutifully along, her constant companion.
“Morning,” Steve called. “I heard all the hammering and thought I should check and make sure you’re alright. Looks like you’ve got things under control.”
“Oh yeah, I got some people working on the roof. Sorry about all the racket. They said it shouldn’t take too long to finish.”
“No, no, that’s okay. We’re about to have our own workers making noise. They’re coming to remove the trees today.”
Agnes shaded her eyes with the flat of her hand as the sun bore down, looking up at Steve curiously. There was something in his voice, something that felt out of place.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Well, I had another reason for coming down here,” he admitted. “I wanted to warn you.”
“Whatever that animal is that’s roaming around here, it came up to our place last night.”
Agnes laughed. “Oh, that’s right, I was going to tell you! It was here last night, too. It’s just a wild pig! He was a big old boy, but friendly. Just looking for a bite to eat.”
Steve shook his head. “No, Agnes. This was something else. It, ah...it got Bo.”
Agnes gasped. “No! What happened?”
It was simple; Bo, the Thompsons’ 3-year old beagle, had been tied up on his runner outside the house after dinner. He was so quiet that the family didn’t think to let him back inside until bedtime, and when Steve went out to fetch him, he found the body. Mangled, he said, throat torn out.
“That is just awful, Steve. I’m so sorry,” Agnes said, feeling her eyes prickle. She couldn’t imagine coming upon Otis that way.
“Sarah’s pretty torn up. Mike, too. He loved that dog,” Steve said, choking back his own tears. “Anyway, I wanted to let you know so you’ll keep Otis inside. He’s a good old boy, aren’t you?”
He reached down and patted the dog’s head affectionately while he regained his composure. Agnes was inclined to give him a hug, but there had always been a guard up around Steve that she couldn’t quite cross. She wasn’t sure if it was because he wasn’t a local--the Thompsons were from away, having moved to Texas from Illinois ten years ago--or because he just wasn’t the touchy-feely type. Either way, she kept her hands to herself.
“I’d better head back up to the house,” Steve said abruptly, swiping a forearm across his eyes. “Lots to do today, and every day for the foreseeable future.”
“Take care, Steve,” Agnes said. “Please tell Sarah and Mike how sorry I am about Bo.”
“Will do,” he smiled, and turned to go. After a moment, he turned back. “Say, did the insurance company come through for you?”
It was such a sudden change in conversation that Agnes was lost for a second. Of course. She’d told everyone about how her insurance company had screwed her over, and now there were workers fixing everything up. What was the better lie? That she’d miraculously gotten through to a multinational conglomerate and made them pay, or that she’d dipped into her nearly non-existent savings account? Steve would know better than that. He’d been giving her free produce for years because he was aware of just how tight things were.
“Oh, yeah! They sure did. It was a nice bit of good news after all this,” she said finally.
“Ah,” he said, and he was smiling but his expression was puzzled. “Good. That’s real good.”
Agnes watched him amble back up the dirt road, wishing she could take it all back. Now not only was she a thief, she was a liar, to boot. Otis looked up at her, nuzzled her hand. He had an uncanny ability to sense her moods and always knew when she needed comfort.
“Come on, boy,” she said, her heart feeling heavy. “Let’s go make some sweet tea.”
Later that evening, Agnes sat on the edge of her bed, feeling incredibly weary.
The past few days had taken a toll, both mentally and physically. She was far too old to be climbing ladders and hauling wheelbarrows around; she did it not because she was the only one who could, but because she feared that if she stopped moving, she wouldn’t get back up.
She glanced over at the wall beside the bed, where several framed photos hung. In the most prominent one, a young man smiled forever out at her from 1969, never knowing that he would be dead within a year. He had dark hair and the same bright blue eyes as Agnes, only without the laugh lines. He’d been just 21 when he was drafted. Over the years, the photo had stayed in one place, but it had become just another piece of furniture to Agnes. Too painful to look at, but unbearable to think of taking down. It was like the tire swing: there, but peripheral. She found she didn’t need too many physical reminders. Tim was on her mind every day. Steve may have forgotten that Agnes once had a teenage son, but she would never forget. And all that remembering made her feel very tired.
At her feet, Otis whined softly and stood up, padded slowly into the living room. He’d been asking to go out more and more often at night, and if she didn’t let him outside to pee at least once after ten o’clock, he’d have an accident. She followed him to the door and opened it up for him, stood there for a moment looking out over the moonlit fields. The weather had turned a bit milder and a cool night-breeze skated over her skin.
She checked the bowl of odds-and-ends she’d left for the pig; it was empty. She grabbed the tin bowl and refilled it and made sure there was still clean water available. Then Agnes called Otis inside, locked the door, and went to bed.
When a low growl pulled her halfway to waking around three a.m., Agnes groaned and pulled the covers higher around her shoulders.
“If you don’t quit with the farting I’m gonna stop giving you so much cantaloupe,” she murmured to Otis, who was snoring in his own bed.
She never saw the shadow move across her window.
Morning dawned foggy and still, already hot by eight a.m. Agnes fed Otis breakfast and prepared a gallon glass jug to make sun tea. The day was so quiet that even with all the windows open there wasn’t a breath of breeze moving anywhere. She moved to her bedroom and sat on the bed, pulling out a word search and sighing with relief in the blast of arctic air that blew from the window unit.
As her eyes roved over the letters, Agnes felt her mind drift to the stash of money hidden in the kitchen. If she really wanted, she could take a little bit more and update her air system and live out the rest of her days in comfort. And didn’t she deserve that? Was it asking for much not to have to sweat through the summers, when so much had already been taken from her? She was a good person, had lived a good life. She had cared for animals since she was a child, she had raised a fine young man who had been snatched away from her by the trials of war. She had already taken money from the bag; what was a little more?
It was wrong, she thought, irritated. She recalled the sorrow she’d felt at having to lie to Steve. There would be no more of that.
But what was she going to do with the cash? It wasn’t like she could take an ad out in the Daily Bugle, asking for the owner to come forward.
The questions circled around her head until she felt dizzy, and by suppertime she was too nauseous to eat. She tipped most of her plate--chicken-fried steak with potatoes and green beans--into Otis’s bowl and did the dishes irritably, knowing that between the heat and her conscience, sleep wouldn’t come easy.
She let Otis outside and surveyed the living room. It was mostly back to normal, although of course she’d have to paint the redone area. That would be another headache unto itself, finding a color to match what was already on the walls. Maybe it was a sign that she needed a change. She scanned through the possibilities in her mind as she readied the house for end-of-day, turning off lights and wiping down the kitchen counter. She discarded peach as too country and yellow as too bright. Maybe a nice eggshell shade, something soft.
“Otis!” she called through the screen door. “C’mon, boy. Bedtime.”
No answer. She flipped on the porch light and nearly jumped out of her skin when a dark figure loomed into view just inches from the screen.
“Lordy! Mike, you scared the bejesus out of me!” Agnes laughed, putting a hand to her chest. Her heart was hammering like a hummingbird just beneath it.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. White,” Michael said. He was a good kid, with his mother’s sandy blonde looks and strong arms from years of farm work and pitching baseball. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wondered if I could talk to you for a minute?”
“Well sure, Mike, what’s on your mind besides hair?”
She stepped out onto the front porch, into the buzz of cicadas and the soft flapping of moth wings against the porch lamp. Texas evenings were never silent in summer; there was life teeming all around.
“Well, it’s about the storm,” Mike said. “We lost a lot, see, like maybe more than my dad let on.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Agnes said. “He mentioned the twister took out your barn. And I’m so, so sorry about Bo. I know how much you loved him.”
“Yeah. Well, there was some pretty valuable stuff in the barn. Some of it’s broken, some destroyed, some just scattered around our field. But there’s one thing that’s missing, and it’s really the most important thing.”
Agnes felt her heart speed back up and did her best to keep a neutral expression on her face. This is it, she thought. This was her reckoning. The money had an owner, after all. She’d have to explain herself and hope that the Thompsons understood. She would have to find a way to pay back the $6,000. It would take the rest of her life. And that was if they didn’t just decide to press charges against her for theft.
“See, I talked to Doug Sanderson. He does a lot of work for my dad, so all it took was a few well-placed questions and he told me what I needed to know. That you paid for that big roofing job in cash.”
Agnes took a deep breath, her mind racing as she tried to come up with a good excuse for why she’d done it. Nothing sounded right in her head; every line led to the same road.
“I don’t know how much you know about what me and my dad do, but it ends now. What we grow in our own fields is none of your goddamn business,” Mike said, his voice on the bare edge of a growl.
Agnes felt her eyes widen, but before she could respond, a high-pitched whine sounded from the side of the house.
“Otis?” she said softly. Her voice shivered in the dark.
She moved past Mike, giving him a wide berth, and jogged down the steps, calling for Otis again. She found him lying on his side in the dirt, breathing heavily, his skin laying in shredded flaps. Blood glistened darkly in the moonlight; the high iron smell of it hit Agnes as she got close and tilted her stomach.
“Oh, God,” she whispered, sitting down hard in the dirt.
Mike came around the corner, holding something against his thigh that glittered: a knife. A big one. Agnes pushed herself backward with her feet, feeling a sweaty flop of hair tumble into her eyes.
“You killed Otis!” she cried. Her voice was a tattered sob in the night. “Why would you do this? I’ll give you the money, I wasn’t going to keep it!”
Mike peered down at her, then at Otis. “I didn’t do this.”
Agnes thought suddenly back to the day she’d gone up Buffalo Road, when Steve had told her about the storm damage at their house. The twister knocked out part of our barn and sucked a bunch of stuff up, threw it everywhere, he’d said. And then, At least the corn field wasn’t damaged. The Harvey girl had looked at him then, as if she was reading between the lines, and suddenly Agnes felt so stupid.
“We’ve been growing pot in those fields since I was a kid,” Mike said softly. “Did you think we’d been able to make a living on corn all these years? Not likely, not when there’s a drought every fucking summer. This goddamn place, it’s like a cancer. It gives a little, and then it takes twice more. Pot has kept us above water for years, and that money was all I had in this world. It was going to get me the hell out of here. Now you tell me where you hid it, bitch. Don’t make me use this.”
He waved the knife at her; it shone greasily in the evening light. Was this it, then? Had Mike killed his own dog and blamed it on a wild animal so her death would look like more of the same? She remembered, suddenly, the day Tim had taught her how to shoot. How to load the gun, how to steady the stock against her shoulder so it wouldn’t kick too hard. She thought of the sunlight on his face and how, if she looked closely enough, she could see the child he used to be, hiding under the angles of a man. The tears wanted to come harder at that, but she pressed her fingernails into the palm of her hand and focused on that, instead.
“The money is inside,” she said. “I’ll have to show you, it’s too hard to explain.”
“Let’s go, then,” Mike said, waving the knife again to get her going.
Agnes stood up reluctantly, casting a glance down at Otis as she went. He was still alive, but barely. One eye rolled up to look at her pitifully and she tried to communicate with her eyes: It’s okay. Don’t go. I’ll be right back.
She walked slowly into the house with Mike right on her heels, knowing if she made one false move he would stick her.
“Does your daddy know you’re down here, threatening an old lady’s life? Killing innocent animals?”
“I told you, I didn’t do that to your dog,” he said through his teeth. “And what my dad doesn’t know won’t hurt him. He’s the one who told me about your little fixer-upper project, how weird it was that your insurance company wouldn’t pay and then all of a sudden they did. That’s when I knew you had my money. Fuckin’ storm. I tried to convince them to come back from Florida early so I could move it somewhere safe, but they wouldn’t hear it.”
Agnes led him into the kitchen, feeling sweat pooling in the small of her back. Even after he got his money, he’d likely kill her. She knew too much. “It’s there, under the sink.”
Mike frowned. “That doesn’t sound so complicated.”
“There’s a false bottom, under all the bottles of cleaning stuff. See the seam? Lift it up and there’s a box of dog treats hidden there.”
“Jesus,” Mike sighed. “You really didn’t want it to go anywhere, did you?”
“I told you, I was keeping it safe for you. I mean, I didn’t know whose it was, but once I figured it out I was going to--”
“Stop!” Mike yelled. Agnes had been inching her way toward the drawer beneath the stove, where the shotgun lay waiting in the dark. “Don’t move another fucking muscle.”
She sized him up, eyed the knife in his hand. She could get to the drawer before he could make it across the kitchen, she was sure of it. Time ticked by on the clock above the sink. Agnes licked salt off her upper lip and dove, yanking the drawer open and going for the gun.
She could hear Mike behind her, scrambling to his feet on the linoleum as she pulled on the shotgun, but it was stuck. The barrel was so long that it was wedged inside the drawer, and no matter how hard she pulled, it would not come out.
Agnes felt a sudden searing pain in her shoulder and for a wild moment she thought she’d pulled a muscle, but then she felt the warmth spreading down her left side. Mike stood in the middle of the kitchen, hand outstretched as though waiting to be handed a package, and then Agnes understood. She looked down and saw the knife sticking out of her shirt, black handle vibrating slightly. She opened her mouth, then closed it again, like a fish out of water.
That was when a massive black bull charged through the wall of the living room and dove at Mike, headbutting him with such force that he was lifted off his feet and thrown violently down the hall, towards her bedroom.
Agnes sagged against the stove, looking at the hole in her wall and the black night beyond it. She could see stars peeking out from behind dissipating clouds and wondered, distantly, if Otis had enough life left in him to see them from where he lay.
Chewing sounds from in the bedroom. Slick, wet sounds. Agnes felt terror slipping into her veins and concentrated on her memory of Tim’s face, imagined him coaxing her outside. It was the only thing that could get her moving. She pulled herself to her hands and knees and crawled, silently, through the kitchen, into the living room, past the massive hole in the wall, and to the front door.
Otis lay where she’d left him, still breathing. She knelt and gently picked him up, being mindful of his wounds--and her own--as she held him to her breast. The knife still stuck out of her shoulder; she didn’t want to pull it out and release a deluge of blood. Otis wasn’t a small dog, but adrenaline had kicked in and she was prepared to run to the barn with him, where they could take refuge in the storm shelter. When Otis whined, she stopped while she was still on the ground and turned around.
It wasn’t a bull at all, but a wolf. A black wolf larger than a man, with the shoulders and torso of a weight-lifter. Covered in course, wiry hair, with paws bigger than Otis’s entire body, and wickedly sharp teeth glinting in the moonlight. Agnes felt her bowels loosen as the sweat that had pooled between her breasts and under her arms suddenly freeze.
It moved with eerie grace for such a large beast, walking slowly across the grass, its eyes never leaving Agnes. They gleamed silver, like two headlights in the distance. She could smell a wild scent wafting toward her, the odor of a den full of predatory stalkers, and she knew that this was the thing that had attacked Otis. It had killed Bo, too. What did it want?
As the beast padded slowly toward her, Agnes kept her head down, locking eyes with Otis. She could hear it breathing heavy, could smell the blood on its lips. Mike’s blood. Her stomach did a slow, greasy roll as she imagined what might be left of the boy in her bedroom and she thought suddenly of the two silver dollars she had hidden in the antique chest at the foot of her bed. She’d gotten them during a vacation at the Grand Canyon in 1965, a girl’s trip with her old friend Ilene. If only I had a few hours and a blast furnace, she thought wildly, I could make myself a fine silver bullet.
The wolf was close, so close she could feel her hair wavering beneath its exhalations. She closed her eyes and waited, wishing she could say something to comfort Otis and hoping he could feel how much she loved him as he lay dying in her arms.
The heat from the beast’s mouth was overpowering, the stench unbearable. Agnes held her breath and felt the end breathing down her neck, but the end never came. She opened one eye warily and looked up, into the giant, gaping maw, and saw its tongue lolling out. It was licking Otis’s wounds, taking care not to create more damage. Agnes let out her breath in a whoosh, her arms trembling from exhaustion and from the anxiety coursing through her veins. She watched as the beast backed up, locking eyes with her for a moment before loping over into the side yard. It picked up the tin bowl--the one that had been filled with food for the wild pig--in its mouth and flung it so that it landed near her, then turned on its powerful haunches and ran away, toward the treeline in the back field.
Agnes stared at the bowl for a long moment. I’ve been feeding him, she thought, all this time. I thought it was the pig, but he probably ate that pig days ago. I’ve been taking care of a werewolf. And he knew it.
Otis whined again, a smaller sound this time that reminded her of a baby. She looked down and let the tears flow freely; they dripped from her nose and onto his fur, which was matted and gory. Her shoulder throbbed like a rotten tooth, so she laid Otis down in the grass and held his paw in one hand, trying to dispel the shakes before she went inside to call the police. They’d have to find an all-night vet, but she thought he would be okay.
“Otis,” she said, kissing his paw. “Look at us. Just a couple of worn out old dogs with bad teeth.”
He snuffled and lifted his tail, thumping it against the ground weakly to show he was listening.
With a grunt, she picked Otis up once more and limped into the house, staring at the hole in the wall for a long moment. She sat him down gingerly on the couch and wrapped him in the afghan there.
In the kitchen, she picked up the phone and sat at the table, gathering herself. When someone answered, she spoke; her voice only shook a little. She requested animal control, and then she asked for officers to come. She listened for a moment, then shook her head.
“No, officer,” she said, eyeing the plastic bag full of cash on the linoleum, “I have no idea why he attacked me.”