Phil and Dale were too drunk to pick me up when they said they would that morning. I didn’t know Dale was coming so I was only mad at Phil. I texted him, “Dude, not cool” from the conference center in Nebraska City where I was a visiting lecturer.
They showed up three hours late. I’d already checked out of my room, briefly having an altercation at the front desk. They’d tried to bill me extra because they thought Phil was my spouse, which he most certainly was not.
I met Phil on a volcano thirteen years ago. The volunteer trip was packed with sing-songy optimistic youth from across upper-middle-class North America. He was the only other teenager struggling with the no smoking rule.
I was seventeen and sitting at a long wooden table reading Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures of the Damned when he introduced himself. Looking back now, I can see why Phil pegged me as someone he’d get along with. He told me he was from Nebraska and that his dad was a real-life poet. He pointed at my Bright Eyes shirt and said he personally knew Conor Oberst. He was trying to impress me.
It worked. Until then I’d never lived anywhere outside of Fonthill, Ontario—a conservative small town predominantly known for electing a home-schooled 19-year-old as a member of provincial parliament. I didn’t know there were poets who weren’t dead or that you could just know Conor Oberst the same way you know the mail carrier or the cashier at the corner store. As an extension of knowing Phil, I came to imbue Nebraska with an esteem similar to what someone more cultivated would’ve attributed to 1920s Paris.
He was beautiful. Thinnish. Curly wheat-blonde hair. A romantic drawl. Well-dressed but ungroomed so his good looks seemed totally accidental.
There was never any romance between us. We’d joked about having a sham wedding so I could get American citizenship and he could throw a party but his girlfriend asked us not to. Our friendship was simple but close. We made each other laugh. We had the same spirit. Something in both of us resisted containment. I saw my childhood in his Omaha. He saw himself in my stories of Fonthill. We both listened to Saddle Creek. He was my brother.
I still wonder how my life would be if I’d stayed in Omaha last year, a place where, for a month, I’d easily, temporarily fashioned a happy life for myself, instead of returning to Toronto where I’d always felt stuck and unhappy.
When the boys finally appeared in the parking lot in a rusty pickup, they had Sushi with them. Sushi was the name given to the three-legged pug by the Insta-ho she was rescued from. It was the only name she’d answer to when she arrived at Phil’s house, extremely traumatized. She was the most amicable creature I’d ever met; cuddly, quick witted, unfalteringly loyal with an astounding memory for each person she encountered. When I opened Phil’s front door after a year away, she greeted me with a stuffed beaver like a little diplomat.
“I’m sorry. I fucked up and lost my phone. But we’re going to Rulo.” Phil had bags under his eyes and smelled like my father, a functional alcoholic who died when I was twelve.
I couldn’t contain my smile when he said Rulo. Even if everything in his body language—his slumped posture, his faded expression and the way he anxiously ran his hands through his hair—indicated he didn’t share my eagerness. I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology. He didn’t want to go to Rulo. I did.
Dale also smelled like my father but ten times more father-y. “Hey girl, wassuuuuppp…” He was wearing his uniform of camo but had switched from a tie-dye tee to a plaid button-up.
Dale had soft dark eyes and gorgeous black hair that fell beneath his toque in loose curls. He was always covered in dirt and paint. He looked like redneck Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He frequently showed up to Phil’s house unannounced to nap on the couch and then leave.
A year ago, during my first trip to Nebraska, Dale had held my hand right before he leaned over the bar and guzzled booze from the tap while the bartender had her back turned. The staff at O’Leaver’s Pub made him take out the garbage and as they laughed at him, he laughed at himself. Outside, he’d asked me about why I was in Omaha and, mistaking his midwestern niceness for earnest curiosity, I started blabbering on about sexual assault.
“C’mon man, that’s not what you fuckin’ lay on a person.”
When the three of us went back to Phil’s, I sat on the cold stairs in the front yard until Dale was gone and didn’t talk to him for the rest of my trip. Phil didn’t invite him over. Without further conversation, he knew not to invite himself in or nap on the couch until I’d left the country.
As I’d unloaded my suitcase in Phil’s kitchen after arriving for this trip three weeks ago, I heard a knock on the backdoor. “Hey girl, wassuppp…”
I recognized Dale’s drawl. He was shaking a jar of weed in the window. I turned the knob and he pulled me into his chest in a long hug. He smelled like melted plastic and cheeseburgers. When he used the bathroom the scent of cheeseburgers permeated the modest bungalow. He pulled out two minuscule bottles of Jameson from a pocket inside his jacket and we took shots in the living room at ten in the morning before he collapsed into his nap.
I wanted to remember him as he appeared in that moment, only a nose and a mouth wrapped in a perfect cocoon of camo. He heard the camera on my phone because I’d foolishly left the sound on.
“Are you saving that for the spank bank?” He grinned.
Later, on the way to Baker’s Supermarket where I needed to buy shampoo and conditioner, Phil made the decision to instead turn into O’Leaver’s for a quick drink and I instinctually knew there’d be no supermarket and I wouldn’t be showering that night.
The bar wrapped around the bartender, Jodeen, like a rectangular C. Old records had been stapled to the wall but Dale’s eyes were narrowly focused on the tap and its proximity to Jodeen.
I confessed to Dale, “I didn’t expect to see you again after the way things left off.”
“You couldn’t get enough of that hot Nebraska ass, wassuppp…”
“Like you’re not into me.”
Under the counter, he folded his hand into mine like I was an instrument he used to play and just decided to pick up again.
“You’re making me hard.”
“Oh yeah, you want to know how I’d suck your dick?”
He did, so I told him. A quiet fell between us.
“Do you want to see my rabbits?” he asked.
He let go of my hand to retrieve his phone from his pocket and show me photos of the rabbits he’d killed. They were lined up in a neat row in the back of the pickup.
In the conference center parking lot, Dale eyeballed my blazer and nametag as he loaded my suitcase into the back. The blazer is a thing I wear to signify that I’m no longer the farmer’s daughter from Fonthill, Ontario. Instead, I am a serious academic. Except my hair was braided in pigtails like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, one braid obscuring my name and the words Visiting Faculty.
Nebraska City disappeared behind us as we pummeled down a highway between field after field. Sushi nestled into Dale in the backseat. I passed him a can of Coors from the half-finished six-pack at my feet before opening one for myself. Phil already had his beer tucked between his legs beneath the steering wheel. The corn harvest had passed. All around us the land lay flat and golden in the sunshine.
“It’s warm,” Phil observed as Sushi made her way from the backseat to my lap and then to his. She looked like she was trying to drive the pickup.
“Global Warming,” I remarked.
Dale piped up, “I’m all for it! 2020! Say stuff just to piss people off! Wassuppp…”
“We need to stop by St. Deroin so Dale can renew his hunting license,” said Phil. “It’s a ghost town with a nature reserve. You’ll like it. Then we can head to Rulo.”
I was troubled by gnawing guilt. The boys had told me there was an abandoned cult compound out in Rulo. I think to impress me with their knowledge of Nebraskan secrets. And I’d been impressed, slipping back into my embarrassing writerly impulse to follow stories, and nagged them to take me.
It wasn’t extraordinary for them to propose long drives in the abstract. I don’t think they often played host. Omaha didn’t attract many Canadian tourists. Phil and Dale were listing places we could go: Kansas City because Phil had never been, Chicago to surprise Phil’s ex-girlfriend, the ranch in Iowa where we’d flipped a truck the year before. Sometimes when Phil was excited he made promises that were hard to deliver on: last year he’d said we’d drive to Arkansas, Texas, New Orleans.
The boys grew quiet on the subject, their expressions increasingly repulsed by my blossoming curiosity. It was apparent to me that something had been left unsaid. Whatever had happened in those farmlands all those years ago was so unspeakable that the boys didn’t even bother to try and explain. Instead, they returned to their beers, signaling to me to stop asking so many questions.
There was no one in the permit office so Dale slid his application for his hunting license into a lonely black mailbox. We split a pack of Marlboros between us as Phil swerved between the trees. Dale expressed his anguish at lost trees—maybe they’d been eaten by deer but he suspected they’d been burned down by the rangers.
“You sound really upset about missing trees for someone who loves global warming,” I noted as he lit a joint.
He exhaled and responded, “Wassuppp…”
“Why didn’t you talk to me over Christmas?”
A week earlier, over the Christmas break, I’d messaged Dale. Phil had flown to New Jersey to visit his sister for the holiday, leaving me alone in Omaha. On Facebook chat the message to Dale had gone seen, but unacknowledged. I partly wanted to see Dale for love of all-things-Dale but, more pressingly, I was scared.
An English literature graduate student, with whom I’d had one conversation about modernist poetry, sent me a song he wrote about me. Then a poem he wrote about me. Then, finally, a message about how knowing someone as lovely as me had made it easier for him to kill himself.
He knew I was staying at Phil’s house. My phone only connected to 9-1-1 in Toronto. Everyone in my Nebraska-circle was on vacation. It wasn’t that Dale was particularly noble or chivalrous, but that he was the only person left in Omaha.
I resented that one person had the power to redefine an entire city for me, an entire state even.
My paranoia fueled my imagination about what this grad student, with his embarrassing tweed jacket and his ugly thick glasses and his bullshit love for bullshit T.S. Eliot, could be capable of. I didn’t message Dale more than once because I didn’t want to come across as needy even if I was in need. The house seemed larger without people in it. I kept checking the front window to see if the grad student’s car was parked outside. None of the guns on the wall were loaded. At night, I slept with Sushi cradled to my chest like a newborn. She was a good dog. She was a bad guard dog. I was frightened and alone.
Dale had a way of speaking slow and fast at the same time, drawing out his vowels but leaving no spaces between words, “Oh damn, I gotta get better at that thing. I don’t say nothin’ to nobody, wassuppp…”
I turned to face him in the backseat. “I think it’s because you’re scared of girls.”
To this Dale offered only a grimace.
“I bet you like my pigtails,” I added, slow and deliberate, “and that scares the shit out of you.” The cold of his fingers slid from my left shoulder, across the back of my braid, neck, other braid, to my right shoulder.
We stopped along the shore of the Missouri River. Phil filled a paper cup with water for Sushi as Dale pointed out the best fishing spots for this fish or that fish. A group of tourists from some eastward city huddled around him. He named what had changed and what had stayed the same, where the embankment had swelled and where it’d retreated.
I pulled out my phone to take a video, “Tell me what river this is, Dale.”
His mood shifted. “I don’t know.”
“Oh, leave him alone,” hollered Phil. “You know he’s afraid of girls.”
“There ain’t no river,” Dale asserted as navy waves paddled southward behind him.
On the outskirts of Rulo, we stopped at a Runza drive-through to get burgers, Sushi charming the cashiers in the window, before pulling into a liquor store beside a hardware store.
Phil tossed the butt of his smoke out the window. “There’s a good reason they put the liquor store beside the hardware store.”
“To murder women?”
“No,” Dale shot back, a little offended. “To make it fun to build houses!”
As we drove on, the land stretched outward like a glorious yellow cape. We turned onto a dirt road. I gripped the seat beneath me, remembering last year when Phil and I’d accidentally flipped a truck in a farmer’s field, hiking three hours back to camp.
“Dale slept in your bed last night, so when we get back we’ll have to change the sheets,” said Phil as the truck bent into a sharp turn on the muddy path.
“I jerked off all over it,” added Dale, the fields growing into bushels of great dead crop that caressed the sides of the truck. They reminded me of my grandparents’ orchard in autumn, the fertile hills of Niagara. I’m not from here, I had to remind myself, as I saw familiar memories in this new place to which I pledged no allegiance and where I had no previous history.
We parked in front of a sign that read No Trespassing. It was tied in the middle of a chain that hung between two wooden posts on either side of the dirt road. Dale hopped the chain with ease but Phil seemed reticent to go inside. “Are there people there?” asked Phil, trying to not sound afraid.
I was more brash. “Are there people still living there? Do they have guns? What if they call the cops on us? I’m not American.”
“Naw,” said Dale lighting another joint, “Sign’s just so insiders can keep outsiders outside but ain’t nobody goin’ to get ya, little girly. Nobody’s here.”
Sushi scurried beneath the chain while Phil stepped over one foot at a time. I opted to duck beneath the chain like the dog while Phil and Dale lifted it over my head to honor my humanity.
“Just don’t tell anyone we were here,” Dale added. “The locals aren’t big on folks comin’ here and gettin’ into their itty gritty.”
Dale comfortably navigated the path lined with thick woods, pointing to the talon tracks and proclaiming there’d been a parade of wild turkeys, pointing at spots of shit and saying “deer” or “coyote.”
Phil and I followed, but Sushi lingered at the sign, whimpering like a toddler who’d just tumbled on the floor and was more startled by the sudden jolt of gravity than actual pain or injury.
“Soosh,” Phil called and hit his thigh. “Come here Sushi!” She ran to him but her skip was a beat slower than normal. She seemed nervous as she circled around Phil, sniffing fallen branches. She barked at empty air. “Sushi, stop barking,” said Phil. “Something’s got her spooked.” Phil had a habit of expressing his feelings by attributing them to Sushi.
Along the path to what was once a compound, I envisioned my aunt. She hasn’t interacted with news outside her church in over three decades. I pictured her modest skirt, her hair fashioned into a pragmatic bun of grey ringlets, carrying a bag of grains to my uncle whose beliefs are so extreme he’s only allowed to preach to those with late-stage Alzheimer’s in the Christian Fundamentalist retirement homes. Yet, I wasn’t from there. I had to keep reminding myself, this was my first time in Rulo.
We passed a silver silo with a faded sign mfs Stor-Age The World’s Grainkeeper before arriving at a grey aluminum building with a rusted-over baby blue door that was freckled by bullet holes. There was a fork in the dirt trail with one route going around the building and into the woods. Phil followed the other path, which stopped at the three cement stairs leading to the baby blue door. The wheat crept up the grey metal siding. An industrial sign reading FARM STEEL had halfway fallen and hung on a crooked angle near the middle of the roof.
Phil haphazardly climbed the three steps and opened the door. A burst of light. Sushi pummeled forward but was startled to find there was no floor on the other end. She squealed and Phil caught her before she could fall in. He held her close, pressing her heart to his and kissing her brow but she was inconsolable, wriggling and gasping in his arms, so he slowly lowered her feet to the ground. She retreated backward, screeching as if she’d been burned.
“This is fucked,” said Phil, again picking up Sushi and backing away.
My stomach hurt. I’d never seen her behave like that.
As I moved toward the building, Dale stepped backward and turned away, as if the sun setting over the hills were more interesting to him than these relics of some forgotten sham-religion.
I reached out my hand. The door was cold as I opened it. Another burst of light.
Inside, the floor had entirely given way to the floorboards beneath. Half of the posterior wall was missing so the framework—wooden rectangles adorned with dangling electrical wires—had a shadowy overlay that shifted into new eerie shapes as each cloud changed the angle at which sunlight entered the building. Perhaps it could be guessed there’d been a flood but, truly, no natural disaster could account for the pattern of destruction inside. It was as though something not of this earth caused the structure to implode. Sushi was still crying.
This place, this breathtaking expanse of country, what some had called Heartland and others’ God’s Land, was not responsible for the maleficent possession that I’d sensed, the wind blowing pebbles in peculiarly precise circles around my boots. Something deeply unnatural and evil had transpired here. I could feel it.
“Dale, how long did the cult live here?” He’d been singing Willie Nelson with his back turned to me.
“I’m uh not sure uh maybe fifteen years. Maybe longer. I don’t know.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Eighty-five. It’s been a while.”
I think if I’d known then what I know now I would have behaved differently. I don’t think I would have pushed to go in the first place, nor accepted the trip as an apology. I wouldn’t have been so presumptuous as to believe the reason Dale wasn’t looking at me was that he was afraid of girls.
In the early 1980s, Michael Ryan, a white supremacist with a distrust of all earthly authority, especially the government, founded the YHVH cult on Rick Stice’s farm in Rulo, Nebraska. Rick’s support of Michael Ryan, who’d honed his views by studying the Christian Identity Movement, was strongly informed by the financial hardship that hit his family as the American economy was becoming less dependent on the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Rick’s wife had received a terminal cancer diagnoses and he was at a loss for how to support his three children. As many do in times of desperation, Rick turned to God.
Rather quickly, Michael Ryan attracted a following of 21 members. They stole farming equipment from neighboring communities to support themselves and stockpiled weapons—30 semi-automatic rifles, 15 machine guns, 150,000 rounds of ammunition, $250,000 worth of stolen farm machinery, several hundred bags of charcoal for making bombs—to fight the Battle of Armageddon which they believed would take place in Nebraska.
As Rick’s wife died, Michael secured four wives of his own. The leader became increasingly agitated and paranoid. Each day, he’d read from the list of names of children on the compound and pick one to reprimand for whatever he could argue had angered Yahweh: generally small, accidental infractions like speaking out of turn or breaking the band of a watch. He’d lash out at women who looked at him the wrong way and eventually separated them from the men entirely, forbidding communication between genders. The women were barred from using the communal telephone and made to wear dresses, while the men were promoted to privates, princes and high priests.
Finally, Rick approached Michael to say that he was uneasy about the messages he claimed to be receiving from Yahweh. The leader, who’d grown jealous of Rick’s ownership of the farm, eagerly demoted him to the status of slave and chained him outside.
Michael then insisted Rick’s five-year-old son, Luke, was a child of Satan because he’d cried too much over the death of his mother. In a photograph published in the Falls City Journal, Luke Stice has thin light hair, sweet downturned eyes, and oversized ears that protruded from either side of his pudgy cheeks.
Michael wrote “666” on the boy’s forehead in bright red. He declared Luke was not a boy but a dog. He called him “doggy” as he took off his clothes, forced him to roll around in a snowbank and antagonized him with a bullwhip. He called him “mongrel” when he shot him in the arm with his .30-06. He wrote “DOG” on Luke’s back before repeatedly submerging his head in the warm bathtub. He ordered his parishioners to abuse both Rick and Luke, going so far as to force father and son to fellate each other while other members watched.
Not long after, Michael found himself fighting with one of his followers who he believed to be jealous of his archangel spirit. As he stormed out of the trailer, he casually grabbed five-year-old Luke and threw him into a book shelf, breaking his neck. His father was again chained to the front porch to ensure he wouldn’t hold him or comfort him or take him to a hospital.
Luke died alone that night. The following morning, Rick swaddled his son’s body in a yellow blanket. He buried him where Michael said Yahweh had instructed: in a shallow grave in front of the hog barn.
The ideology that Michael Ryan used to justify his abuse of Luke also manifested in the doctrines he instilled in his own son, Dennis. Dennis cried when his father prophesized they’d have to kill for Yahweh in the Battle of Armageddon. He said he was afraid. To this, Michael shouted “Dammit, you’ve gotta be willing to kill for God if that’s what God wants.” He passed his gun to him and added, “Son, one day when all this is over, when Armageddon is over and I’m dead and gone, then you can sit under an oak tree and cry over having to kill so many people. Until then, I don’t ever want you to cry again.”
Shortly thereafter, Dennis shot James Thimm, a loyal follower, in the face. James survived the gunshot wound but was tortured by Michael and Dennis for days—they broke his bones, raped him, forced others to rape him, repeatedly sodomized him with a shovel, chained him in the hog barn and forced him to have sex with a goat before stomping on his chest until he was dead.
If I’d known the baby blue door was not the door to the home where the women slept peacefully in long romantic white garments, as I’d naively imagined, but was in fact the door to the hog barn where a young man and a child had been tortured to death, I do not think I would have opened it, stuck my head inside, taken a photo and giddily posted it on Instagram while flattering myself that Dale’s cold shoulder was a reflection of his weakness in character and not mine. If I’d known this little boy had been called a dog and treated as one should never treat a dog, I would have trusted Sushi’s instincts and not opened the door. Certain experiences stay with you like a bad infection. I couldn’t sleep last night: visions of a child screaming in a field. Some doors we cannot close.
I followed Phil who followed Dale along the path to the water. We only had an hour left of day. Raptors flew near the earth, the patterns on their brown and white feathers visible to the naked eye. Phil cautioned Sushi not to get eaten. Dale named each bird specifically and explained how he’d shot and killed this one or that one. He told me how to follow prints, which direction he’d be heading if he’d not forgotten his gun. In that moment, he seemed to me totally unafraid, the closest I’d ever come to believing invincibility a plausible trait in a person. In a place that had been ruled by fantasies of apocalypse, I was entirely certain if he didn’t succumb to alcoholism or drug addiction, Dale could easily survive anything.
We picked up our pace as we returned to the hog barn. The bullet-marked door was still half open. Day was fading. None of us wanted to be in the compound after sundown, especially Sushi, who charged forward with the tenacity of a horse.
The truck appeared as a beacon at the top of the hill. This time we all walked around the chain instead of over or under. Dale hijacked the front seat, so I settled in the back as Phil sped the car in reverse and Dale whined that he was driving too fast for him to roll another joint.
“Dude, how many of those have you been smoking?” asked Phil, part-concerned but mostly just impressed.
“Oh, just a couple here or there. Wassuppp…”
It occurred to me then that Dale hadn’t said wassuppp the entire time we were on the compound. I was certain the only reason he said it so much was that he was actually shy and insecure and used wassuppp to fill the void between what he was sure of and what he wasn’t sure of, to turn whatever he said into a joke. The box of beer cans that had been purchased in the place beside the hardware store was now nearly empty. Dale was trying to enter into a profound state of delirium where he’d feel more at peace with his thoughts and at home in his body.
He insisted we stop at a small bar in a shack beside the Rulo Bridge, near the border with Kansas and Missouri, the nape of Nebraska.
We left Sushi in the truck where she was snoozing. Phil insisted we only stay for one drink. My flight was leaving in a few hours. Dale wanted me to miss my flight and freefall with him into a pervasive fog of vivid intoxication. He reminded us not to talk about the cult grounds with locals. I was already drunk from all the beer we’d had in the truck but not so drunk I was capable of anything fantastical or outlandish.
The bar was small and square and full of gun-carrying men except for the two women working. The women looked as if there’d been something to survive and they’d survived it.
“I’m going to need I.D.s from all y’all,” the larger of the women said while turning her palm upwards and beckoning to us with her swollen fingers.
First, she checked Phil’s. Then Dale’s. When she got to mine, her eyes flickered between my blazer and my name tag. “Mine’s from Toronto,” I said, handing over my driver’s license but keeping my purse open.
“She’s Canadian,” announced Phil. “Stuff looks a bit different there.”
“Let me know if you need to see my passport,” I added, a little too eager to be helpful.
A sign on the wall read NOTICE, THIS PLACE IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT. The “in” of the “correct” had been Sharpied into a black square, WE SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, WE SALUTE OUR FLAG & GIVE THANKS TO OUR TROOPS, IF THIS OFFENDS YOU LEAVE. The LEAVE was in larger font than the rest and pointedly stoplight red.
“What brings you to Rulo from Canada?” asked the woman.
Remembering what Dale had told me about locals not liking trespassers on the compound, I responded, “I’m a visiting professor at the University. I was just lecturing over in Nebraska City.”
“Hmmm,” she hummed as if she was trying to decide if she liked or hated me based on these few facts alone.
Dale was folded into himself, a bundle of camo in a room with nothing to camouflage into. “Naw, she took us to poke around ‘em cult grounds up there. Wassuppp…”
Luckily, the woman was more entertained by Dale’s flagrant drunkenness than anything. She cackled, pouring our shots and serving our beers before sauntering to the far corner to watch the football game with the other woman and the old drunk men.
We all took a shot of Jameson, tapping the bar with the bottoms of our glasses before emptying them into our mouths.
“What’s that?” I asked Phil, pointing to a smaller TV showcasing what looked like a bingo-themed video game: a series of balls and squares, some red and some blue, that were numbered between one and eighty.
“Keno. Worst odds in America. Wanna play?”
“Sure.” I bet two of my seven remaining American dollars and lost. Phil bet two as well. He also lost. Dale bet one hundred American dollars. “This is foolish,” Phil commented, and Dale promptly sneezed mucus that ran across his lips and straggled in long lines dripping down his filthy jacket.
“Jesus Christ man, get it together,” said Phil, handing him our only napkin. It was not enough napkin for all of the snot on his face. The woman behind the bar noticed and did not react at first but, after he carelessly placed the soiled tissue on the bar and sneezed two more times, she understood what a pathetic specimen he was and handed over a stack of fresh napkins while snickering into the back of her arm.
“You’re gross, dude,” said Phil. “Also, you lost.” He pointed at the Keno screen.
“Wassuppp…” sang Dale, wiping the last of the mucus from his face but allowing the rest to settle into dim stains on his clothing.
“I gotta piss.” Phil disappeared behind the corner near the ATM machine.
For the first time since Omaha, Dale and I were alone. An uneasy quiet fell between us. Was Dale wondering why I’d begged to go to the cult grounds? Was he relieved we’d gone? Did he regret losing his money to the Keno? Perhaps he had no thoughts at all but held the simple admirable desire to get fucked up.
“Wassuppp…” he sang at my face.
I looked back at him: he was so silly, so dumb, so redneck. I smirked and leaned into his jovial round cheeks, half-whispered in his ear, “I scare you more than any wild bird.”
The room seemed darker. It was as if the music had stopped but I don’t think it did.
He didn’t laugh. He was still, maybe stunned, shell-shocked even.
Then his soft brown eyes intensified. I’d tickled some part of him. He put his hand in mine under the bar as was our way. We gently traced the rounds of each other’s grasp with our thumbs. He could be so soft. His softness was compelling to me because it had to be earned.
He moved closer, and instead of kissing me, something he’d never had the courage to do, he began to knead the back of my neck with his fingers. He pressed hard, only narrowly avoiding the boundary between hard and too hard. It felt so comfortable I didn’t care if there were others around or if they were watching. He’d handled animals. He knew where to skin, how to cut a body. He understood how to break a bone so it wouldn’t bleed out and where to make an incision to avoid wasting the flesh. So too he understood where to push on my neck so I did not strangle but still felt the relief that came with pressure on this muscle or that. My breathing slowed. Now he only smelled like earth and weed and drink. I wanted to wrap myself in him. I pictured us in a little tent on the cult grounds, him unbuttoning his camo pants and slipping into me through my professional brown dress, his hand leaving traces of paint and dirt on my blazer. His warm eyes. His long dark hair. The trees. The grass. We’d be closer to nature where I’d always felt closer to God and, for however much I’ve been educated, I still believe in God. He’d keep me safe and we could live off what we picked or killed and be truly self-sufficient, working the land the same way my father’d tried, as my grandparents and great grandparents had done. I could quit my jobs. We could hide from both our governments. I could run from my student loans. I could write remotely or, better yet, never write again. I’d never have to talk to another writer again. No more poetry readings. I’d have quiet. Beautiful black night with no people or neon or internet or cars. Quiet.
I leaned into the bar as he touched me. I was very wet.
I wouldn’t have to move back to Toronto where the flashing lights of Bloor Street invade my room at all hours. Toronto, where the bar downstairs drums into my ears until dawn and people have so many opinions and phones ring and buzz and everything is swept into the alarming pace of constant movement. Maybe I wanted to return to a home that no longer exists, Fonthill gentrified and suburbanized by the urban sprawl. I could make love to Dale in fields as I had with the boys of my youth, before the world warmed and the ticks came and brought Lyme disease with them. Nobody mentioned ticks in Nebraska. It could be sweet and golden. What if I didn’t catch my flight? What if I curled into Dale who seemed to me, in that moment, an extension of a world I’d believed lost? We could live off the land. We could opt out of society.
A country song transitioned into another country song. The dark behind my closed eyelids seemed sepia. I could wake up every morning with the sun and the wheat and be peacefully swallowed into the marigold hills of Rulo. It could be that easy, I thought. It could be comfortable, I thought. So comfortable.
Comfortable was the last thought I had before my neck snapped backward, the skin of my forehead yanked toward my hairline, my back arched in a deep curve, my balance lost, arms waving like a bird in flight, a twist, the flickering light, the camo chest, the camo wrist, both my pigtails entwined within the screw-tight grip of Dale’s hard fist.